Editor’s Note: We are pleased to publish one of the finalist essays from our first literary essay contest: “A Twofold Exile: Fates of the Lyricist” by Argentine writer Alejandro Gómez Monzón, translated to English by Arthur Malcolm Dixon.
(…) very soon, my first milonga will appear. The music is by Guastavino, the cover by Basaldúa, and the lyrics my own. (…) Now, in these lyrics, I shall try to do what Lugones did so admirably in his book: I shall try to forget my literature and do something that may seem anonymous, that should be almost anonymous, that should belong to no one, or—which is the same—belong to everyone. In any case, something that should not be emphatically my own.
Jorge Luis Borges
Revista Ficción, 1965
There’s the false modesty of those who know they are remarkable and claim they are not. Then there’s the false modesty of those who, being unremarkable, deny having a genius they genuinely lack, while deep down they believe they do indeed possess it. If there is a field in which false modesty reaches its apex, it is the field of popular music, due essentially to the greater exposure of musicians and singers in comparison to, for example, artists working in the fields of sculpture, dance, literature, or even so-called “serious” music.
Thus, if a singer-songwriter should see fit to drink a glass of wine or suck down mate while on stage, it is likely that this relatable gesture will be welcomed as an act of humility or closeness to the audience, as opposed to an exercise in sensationalistic histrionism (the closer, the further away, as Walter Benjamin would say). Speaking of music and poetry, art forms that could almost be called conjoined twins—Apollo and the muses breathed the same air; the Greek aoidoi and the Spanish juglares bore testimony to it—the song lyricist is a minor figure (which is to say, a less auratic one) when compared to the singer or guitarist. Here I refer specifically to the lyricist who writes the words, who only and exclusively composes the lyrics that form part of the ballad, the rock song, or the joropo, not to the singer-songwriter who writes the songs but then, at center stage, steals the whole show.
Ever since the seas were parted and the poem—read in silence, no longer recited—became a hitherto-unknown major player, rhyme—the musical box or rattle of poetry—has subsisted primarily in the popular songbook. Besides this relegation of assonance and consonance from the field of the poetic, the song lyricist seems to have been born into confinement: beyond dazzling cases like that of Alfredo Lepera—writer of many lines sung by Carlos Gardel—his role is not only undervalued in comparison to the musician’s; it is also undervalued in comparison to that of the poet who distributes his work through the book-object. To sing and write in silence, beneath the stage and outside the edited volume, is the nature of his stardomless star.
One of countless beautiful compositions from the Latin American songbook—“¿Será posible el sur?” with music by Nahuel Porcel de Peralta and lyrics by Jorge Boccanera—backs up this claim. Boccanera, a brilliant and renowned poet, is not well enough remembered as a lyricist. He tosses out a forking question: “might the south be possible?” Within the framework of the song, this conundrum becomes tender indignation and cutting wit. The song’s north star is Argentina in the yoke of the military government that, from 1976 to 1983, held tight to political and economic power. Uttered alone, without the verses that surround it, this question still delves deep into history—but here, the word “south” stretches further, not anchored to any one time or place but rather referring to an entire continent, its evolution and its long-held hope. “¿Será posible el sur?”: in these words tremble both the root and the summit of the lyric; if someone had never heard the whole song and came across only these words, they would find in them a lucky coin, a master key with which to open other doors.
On the other hand, and with masterful poets in mind, who recalls the musical practice, for example, of the celebrated Fabio Morábito, composer of around forty songs, some sung by Mexican artists Carmen Leñero and Gabriela Serralde and others performed by the group Barburia, in which the poet, essayist, and novelist played guitar and lent his (physical) voice to his own verses? “Perdió a su madre cuando no tenía más de quince años, / para no perder la virginidad la mandó al diablo” [He lost his mother when he was no more than fifteen / so as not to lose his virginity he sent her to the devil], the author of Un náufrago jamás se seca and El lector a domicilio says, cuttingly, in “Sara,” recorded in 1985. In an interview with Jorge Fondebrider for the Periódico de Poesía of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Morábito outlines a set of laconic and precise claims that could easily be read as an ars poetica of the songwriting lyricist:
The biggest problem with putting a poem to music is that the result seems like just that, a poem put to music, not a song with good lyrics. That’s why, in general, I would rather compose the lyrics along with the song. That’s the most natural and emotional way to go about it. You learn you can use unelaborate verses with music—verses that, read or heard without music, might seem trivial, but that, when sung, take on tremendous vigor and emotion. The bolero is perhaps the genre where this is most notable. A good songwriter must aspire not to write lyrics that seem like poems, but rather lyrics that fuse perfectly with the music, that empower it just as they are empowered by it.
Boccanera’s lyrics, preserved for perpetuity by none other than “La Negra” Sosa, have reached a level of transnational resonance that Morábito’s, while also eminently realized, have not attained. Nonetheless, both poets converge in the tenuous role to which the author of the songbook’s texts is normally fated (of course, if Morábito’s songs sung by himself had acquired higher fame, the novelist would be celebrated as a songwriter, not a lyricist). The popularity of song and the consequent potency of image (iconicity) that often marks musical artists links a song’s verses less to the poet who conceived them and more to the voice that puts them in the air. The acclaimed Mercedes Sosa had the subtle habit of singing with the song’s lyrics on hand, resting on a stand in the audience’s sight; she did this, she claimed, not because she was afraid she would forget a line, but because she wanted the crowd to know the words uttered by her voice had been previously imagined—in the hellish or heavenly solitude of a bedroom, a bar, or a train car—by a poet.
“THE FACT THAT THE LYRICIST DOES NOT TAKE PART IN THE SPARKLING LIVE PRESENTATION OF THE SHOW UNSURPRISINGLY DENIES HIM THE STRONG PRESENCE THAT SURROUNDS INSTRUMENTALISTS AND SINGERS”
When we cast our eyes (or hold our ears) to the authors of poetry in song, we find many variants: there are versifiers who composed their songs’ music at the same time (José Alfredo Jiménez, Luis Alberto Spinetta, John Lennon, and Silvio Rodríguez); songwriters who became so well known for their songs that their status as writers was left to one side (a striking case: the María Elena Walsh who became famous for her children’s songs devoured the María Elena Walsh who was a woman of letters and a writer, the author of, for example, 1947’s Otoño imperdonable, warmly recognized by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Pablo Neruda); those who were coauthors of certain repertoires (Manuel Castilla as lyricist for Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón; Jorge Luis Borges wrote verses put to music by Astor Piazzolla and sung by Edmundo Rivero; Romildo Risso wrote several texts recorded by Atahualpa Yupanqui; other examples abound); and those who, having published their work as poems, later had said poems “sung” thanks to the sonic reinvention of their work by certain musicians (Gabriel Zaid brought to song by Fabio Morábito and Óscar Domínguez; Antonio Machado by Serrat; and many others besides).
It is undeniable that songs’ verses tend to be less complex and less risky, in writerly terms, than literary texts (although this is not precisely the case of the lyrics by Jorge Boccanera mentioned above, first published in 1980 as a poem in the book Oración para un extranjero, and, shortly after being read by Nahuel Porcel de Peralta, set to music). Perhaps we might think that, just as poetry is the least commercialized genre in the literary sphere, in the musical sphere it is the least authorly and, somehow, the least authorized.
According to writer Eugenio Mandrini, a line must be drawn between the songbook poet and the plain-and-simple lyricist; if so, tango giants like Homero Manzi, Enrique Santos Discépolo, and Héctor Pedro Blomberg would fall into the first category. While Mandrini’s distinction is tempting, the fact is, while not every lyricist is necessarily a poet of song, nor is every poet of written literature a poet of written literature—or, in other words, an excellent practitioner of poetry.
Minimized in both the world of fine arts and the world of music, song lyrics continue to sound their unstoppable pulse. In academic circles, institutional approaches to literature tend not to emphasize lyrics as they do poetry (the lyricist is not a wordsmith and is denied the prestigious orality of the Poem of the Cid or the Song of Roland). Likewise, university studies of music put nowhere near as much emphasis on lyrics as they do on musical structures themselves. There, in this non-unanimous nonplace or border, in this twofold exile, dwell discreetly and intensely the weavers of the verses that a singer and, why not, a whole audience, whether in a massive theater or some gloomy little bar, will someday sing in unison.
There is no need to devalue a song’s lyrics by measuring it against the poem, or to spurn the sonority the literary text possesses in and of itself (when Debussy put The Afternoon of a Faun to music, Mallarmé noted that the poem already had a music all its own). Nor is it propitious to inflatedly exalt the songwriter’s verses and extol them for the treacherous glory of anonymity, or for popular music’s happy possibility of reaching distant times and places. It is rather a question of finding in these genres—lyric and poem: music and literature—two specific forms of something that implicates them both: poetry. At the end of the day, Homer, the West’s first literary author, is also the first songwriter known to history.
Borges’s attempt to make something that belongs to no one and to everyone could not come to fruition, even though he succeeded in making songs that do not sound iconically Borgesian, as in the case of the “Milonga de Juan Muraña” and the “Milonga de Manuel Flores,” in which echo those unforgettable four lines, forgotten indeed by popular memory: “Manuel Flores va a morir, / eso es moneda corriente: / morir es una costumbre / que sabe tener la gente” [Manuel Flores is going to die. / You can bet your money it’s true; / And dying, well, that’s a common thing. / That people know how to do (tr. Robert Mezey)].
While the genre of song brings together at least three elements—lyrics, music, and performance—the fact that the lyricist does not take part in the sparkling live presentation of the show unsurprisingly denies him the strong presence that surrounds instrumentalists and singers. It is therefore useless to demand an impossible centrality on his behalf. But, perhaps, greater consideration could be requested. Would the wonderful Bob Dylan have won the Nobel Prize for Literature if he had only written the words to his songs? Would he be so ubiquitous without his wide-brimmed hats and his shy, bedeviled, light-blue eyes? Might we imagine major musical prizes for the authors of song lyrics? The answer to these questions is blowing in the wind of a voice, not in the cornered swell of a page smeared with ink.