Poetic Voice and Materiality / Listening with Song-Poems: Vanity and Voice / Matthew Kilbane

Hit Records 45 Cover” by Fayster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Green fingernails, I love you (I love you)
Green fingernails, you betcha (you betcha)
Green fingernails, I’m riding high
Green fingernails, I’ll love you, ’til I die

Green fingernails, I need you (I need you)
Green fingernails, you betcha (you betcha)
Green fingernails, don’t say goodbye
Green fingernails, I’ll love you, ’til I die

Green fingernails, you make me sick1

Song-poems are the product of a long-running if minor cultural industry in the United States, one that takes as grist for its mill the skills and the fantasies of aspiring lyric writers.2 The song-poem racket—and it is a racket—runs like this: song poem entrepreneurs (or “song sharks,” as they’re sometimes known) place advertisements in mass-market magazines and other pulp media, soliciting original “poems” from those with a desire to hear their own words in song. “Green Fingernails,” excerpted above, is an example. Often dangling the promise of bigtime royalties, often offering flattering praise for their lyric, these song sharks then collect a substantial fee from the writer—in the case of “Green Fingernails,” one Charlotte Strathman—in exchange for setting the poem to nigh-improvised music. For a sense of just how slambang this accompaniment could be, consider that the vocal artist featured on “Green Fingernails,” Gene Marshall (pseudonym of the super-prolific Gene Merlino), once claimed to have recorded fifty-five song-poems in one four-hour recording session in 1969.3

Song-poem clients then receive their song in the mail, but needless to say, the royalties never arrive. It’s hard to generalize about clients’ levels of satisfaction with the readymade artworks they’ve dearly purchased.4 But given what we know of the slipshod conditions on the factory floor, we might wonder whether Strathman balked at a misread word in her lyric—whether the line “Green fingernails, you make me sick” originally read, more plausibly, “Green fingernails, you make me sigh,” and it was only a hasty mistake on Marshall’s part that has canonized this particular song poem among collectors of outsider music and the American weird.

Francesca Inglese, one of the few scholars to have taken an interest in song poems, identifies this swindling enterprise as essentially the “musical equivalent of the vanity press.”5 The maligned shadow of the commercial pop music industry more generally, it has endured since the early twentieth century by ceaselessly adapting its musical means of production. Whereas in its early days, song sharks would set lyrics as sheet music, “beginning in the 1950s,” as Inglese traces, “song-poem companies began producing records for their customers, hiring session musicians [like Marshall], and later making use of synthesizers and drum machines to produce as many as a dozen pieces per hour.”6 This factory set-up persists today in those few song-poem outfits that have survived the proliferation of inexpensive digital tools for home recording.

In the 1990s, song-poems sparked hipster interest, sending record collectors scouring bargain bins and garage sales, where oddities are the currency of the realm.7 It is no surprise, then, that according to the genre’s keenest collector, Phil Milstein, the most famous song-poem is a number titled “Peace & Love,” but more popularly known as “Blind Man’s Penis.”8 The 1976 lyric boasts such indelible lines as “Warts loved my nipples because they are pink” and the “the gelatin fingers oozed electric marbles.” Its writer, John Trubee, wrote the madcap text as a Dadaist prank, challenging its arrangers and performers at the song-poem company, Nashville Co-Writers, to take it seriously—which they were contract-bound to do; the buttoned-up singer-songwriter Ramsey Kearney set the lyrics to a decorous country shuffle that could pass for 1970s radio fare.9 The result is an aesthetic object dynamized by cross-purposes, a kind of straight-faced surrealism of such extreme doublemindedness that it could only be produced by two artists working in opposite directions.

Putting to one side the oddest gems, song poems generally work the other way around: ostensibly sincere lyrics are set to ruthlessly generic music in what Inglese terms an “‘anonymous collaboration’” between “poignant personal expression and impersonal commercial rendering.”10 As a consequence, while there is something alluringly absurd or absurdly alluring about such a collision between deeply felt sentiment and industrial predation, one is tempted to deplore the song-poem on cultural-political and literary fronts. The conning encounter between song shark and songwriter seems, on the one hand, the most extreme travesty of the relationship between a lyric’s reader and writer, while on the other, the song-poem racket capitalizes on an idealized figure of “poetic voice” that marries expressivist Romantic theory to certain suspect dogmas of the creative writing workshop: “you have a ‘voice’ all your own; find it (and sell it!).” And yet, we can learn much by following these compromised artifacts around the dialectical bend. I argue that song-poems, however delusive, furnish a vocabulary for recasting metaphors of poetic voice in terms that directly entail the concerns with materiality at issue in this cluster.

Thankfully there is no shortage today of theoretical models for carefully marking the difference between the structures of any poem’s vocalizable sounds and the metaphorical voices those structures can effect—Jonathan Culler’s description of lyric “voicing” is one such model, Brent Hayes Edwards’s “poetics of transcription” is another, Susan Stewart’s notion of poetry’s “recall[ed] sound” is one more.11 In 2008, Lesley Wheeler opened her book Voicing American Poetry by underlining the distinction between “voiced texts” and “textual voices”—between the voice as sonorous fact and the voice as phonocentric figure, what Paul de Man termed that “phenomenalization of poetic voice” on which lyric poetry depends.12 Between facts and figures of voice, it is the former that animates recent scholarship most intensely. Recruiting insights from sound, voice, and media studies, and with the revelatory aid of new digital archives and tools, critics are lavishing ever more resourceful modes of attention on the situated dimensions of poetry’s actual voices—on how those sounding out and listening to texts bring to bear, consciously or not, the meaningful purchase of their own embodied identities and social histories.13 This short essay swims experimentally against the current, then, by exploring how a lyric theory that takes seriously the song-poem enables a materialist reclamation of the poetic voice even in its figurative mode, reframing that ostensible figment as a vital and, as we will see, vitally vain strategy for securing contact with absent publics.

The song-poem makes extravagantly literal a first principle of poetic writing: the alienation of the voice from the speaking poet. The song-poet, in sharing their “voice” with the world, entrusts their lyric to the unscrupulous care of a song-shark who realizes the song only for profit. One might say that in doing so they merely ratchet to an extreme that same alienation of the voice that Plato fears in the writing of speech, that Provençal troubadours thematize when they address their own songs in song, and that allows poets from Horace to Hughes to imagine that poems possess a life of their own that is also a proof against time. This fundamental alienation is the basis for those abstracting hallucinations of a single expressive voice that many scholars now identify as the fruit of “lyric reading,” and importantly for my purposes, it is also what conditions observations of a special reciprocity that binds the voice of a speaker and its audience, or what Helen Vendler calls the “twinship between writer and reader.”14

We have good reason to be suspicious of claims for a reciprocity premised on the universal possibility of identification. To assert, for instance, that the lyric poem is “the most intimate of genres,” but also “the most universal of genres…because it presumes that the reader resembles the writer enough to step into the writer’s shoes and speak the lines the writer has written as though they were the reader’s own,” is to threaten the evacuation of both difference and history itself from the history of poetry.15 We can locate a more useful account of lyric reciprocity, I think, in the work of Allen Grossman, for whom the shared voice of lyric poetry is not so much universally available as dynamically and constitutively intersubjective. I quote at length here from his magisterial “Summa Lyrica”:

The process of creation of human presence through acknowledgment [this is for Grossman the essential work of poetry] moves through persons across time and is completed neither in the writer nor the reader but in the mutually honorable reciprocity of both. At any moment of reading the reader is the author of the poem, and the poem is the author of the reader. The honor of creation is not with the one or the other, but among them. Above all, they are intended (destined) for one another in that the poem looks ahead to the reader, and the reader (as reader) to the poem.16

For all their crudity and pathos, song-poems amplify the desire, on the part of readers and writers both, for the kind of shared voicing or “mutually honorable reciprocity” adumbrated here. In their desire for a public hearing, song-poets insist on the mutually identifying “twinship” of lyric writers and their readers or listeners, even as the practice’s cultural-industrial make-up ruthlessly capitalizes upon the fact that this desired twinship is a projected desire, a thing of the lyric imagination, an exercise in vanity.

The anonymous author of a 1923 article entitled “Song Sharks and Their Victims: An Exposé” observes that “the whole wretched game depends upon the ignorance, vanity and cupidity of the gullible.”17 Whether critics of this industry are decrying how song-poets get swindled by false promises of fame and fortune, or condescending to the less naïve song-poets that take pleasure simply in hearing their own words put to music, the common charge is “vanity.” I suggest that the kind of vanity at issue in song-poems speeds us to the word’s Latin root—vanus, empty. When a writer writes a song-poem, they fashion a linguistic vessel they want others to fill—with a performer’s voice, yes, but not only with voice. We mistake what is crucially at stake here if we imagine that the writer is wagering for a reciprocal relationship with the song-shark, or with the musicians who cut their record in 5 minutes flat. Rather, the song poet creates a lyric—often an “I”—and then hopes that “I” will be a frame and habitat for absent others. It is an exercise in vanity—perhaps self-admiring, perhaps futile—but this is vanity of a profoundly reciprocal kind, one that is the precondition for contact and interested acknowledgement between lyric’s writers and readers, exactly because it is shared. The vanity of lyric voice is that particular form of lyric reciprocity in which vanity’s two meanings, self-centeredness and futility, conspire to assert contact with an absent public. It is when writing for oneself becomes linked to—maybe indistinguishable from—the desire to write for a wider public, however futile the latter enterprise.

The lyric for “My Twin and I,” a song-poem by writer Phyllis Varisco and singer Rod Keith, can be pressed into service as an allegory of sorts for a reciprocal lyric voice structured in vanity:

We were alike, my twin and I,
We shared all things together.
And none could ever question why
It seemed that way forever.

As I recall the past,
I think about her with a sigh,
For nothing ever lasts—
We were alike, my twin and I…18

Like this speaker’s relationship to their twin, the relation between a writer and reader is both a thing irrevocably past (“nothing ever lasts”) and recallable in performance. The complex temporality of the refrain captures this paradox; the phrase “We were alike, my twin and I,” consigns the twin and reciprocity itself to the absence of the past even as the sentence asserts their presence and parity in its first-person plural subject. In the poignant awkwardness of the lines “and none could ever question why / It seemed that way forever,” the grammar hangs that last word suspended between dashed delusion and performative truth (“forever” exhumes the word “seemed” from its past tense). And, of course, when Rod Keith sings those lines, or when we read them, this twinship is momentarily reconstituted. The lyric writer’s “vanity” is not so much self-regard as a desire to be regarded, perhaps even to be secularly constituted by that other’s regard—the desire to hear oneself speaking in another’s voice, a different kind of vanity mirror.

As if to echo the ambiguity between romantic desire and familial love that quickens Varisco’s lyric, Grossman, in his eccentric style, has described “the seriousness of the lyric person” as “incestuous.”19 By self-authorizing poetic speech (no one has asked them to speak), a poem’s speaker metaphorically breaks the incest taboo by flouting the requirement that “the human individual abandon its primordial impulse toward autonomy”: “The lyric speaker seems always to be a version of the self in the process of withdrawing from objective social relations toward the defilement of marriage with origins.”20 We should not let the peculiarity of Grossman’s register distract from the argument about poetic structure; we don’t need the incest taboo to see how the authorizing “self-identification” of a lyric speaker can “render[] equivocal the relation of the speaker with the social other.” In the case of a poet like Hart Crane, this equivocal relation manifests in the poetry’s intense rhetorical “obscurity.” For a song-poet, by contrast, that relation is vexed by precisely what the charge of vanity indicts: futile and undue self-admiration.21 Song-poets like Varisco are caught up in what Grossman, after Roberto Mangabeira Unger, calls the “paradox of sociability”—the more tenuous one’s relation to others, the harder it is to express one’s individuality.22 This is “the trouble which gives rise to lyric,” says Grossman.23 It is certainly what gives rise to vanity.

If the writer’s vanity is the self-interested desire for the life beyond self that is the dispensation of an absent public, the reader or listener’s vanity is their belief the lyric was destined for them. Grossman speaks about the poem as “the destiny of the reader.”24 Carly Simon puts it this way: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you.”25 And indeed, just as Simon’s dreams are really clouds in her coffee, all this is laden with fantasy and delusion and on my part the strongarmed reading of cultural-industrial material. Nevertheless, understanding voice in a material key means learning to value this particular kind of vanity as a condition of lyric reciprocity—a structural openness to one’s public even when that public is absent, even when that voice is just in our heads or hearts.

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This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. “Green Fingernails” (n.d.), lyric by Charlotte Strathman, sung by Gene Marshall (Preview Records 2516-2).
  2. According to collector Phil Milstein, “[s]ong-poem is really just a euphemism for the word ‘lyric.’ […] I think that it was designated because the entrepreneurs believed that their target audience for this sort of thing wouldn’t even know what the word ‘lyric’ means. And it’s also meant to suggest some sense of the inner circle of the music industry.” Scott Simon, “Songs from the Common Man,” NPR, June 27, 2003,
  3. As quoted in Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story. Dir. Jamie Meltzer. Independent Lens on PBS. 2003.
  4. Based on letters he would receive from song-poem writers, Merlino reflects that “98, 99 percent of all the people were very happy just getting back their little 45,” suggesting that the thrill of musical publication was proof enough against any qualms about quality. Quoted in Jon Pareles, “Just Plain Folks Write Songs,” New York Times, 9 February 2003.
  5. Francesca Inglese, “‘Watch Out for the Sharks’: Gender, Technology, and Commerce in the American Song-Poem Industry,” Journal of the Society for American Music 7, no. 3 (2013): 295-315.
  6. Inglese, “‘Watch Out for the Sharks,’” 296.
  7. A phenomenon documented in and exemplified by Jamie Meltzer’s 2003 documentary Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story and in Irwin Chusid’s book from 2000 on outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z.
  8. “Peace & Love” (1975), lyric by John Trubee, sung by Ramsey Kearney. The American Song-Poem Anthology (Bar/None); Phil Milstein, “John Trubee: Peace & Love (Blind Man’s Penis), American Song-Poem Music Archives,
  9. John Trubee, “You Too Can Be A Recording Star,” Spin Magazine 5 (September 1985), 74.
  10. Inglese, “‘Watch Out for the Sharks,’” 295.
  11. Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 35; Brent Hayes Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017), 57-85; Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), 68.
  12. Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 2; Paul de Man, “The Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory,” Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, edited by Chaviva Hošek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 55.
  13. An extremely partial list of recent examples: Anthony Reed, Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production(Durham: Duke University Press, 2021); Jessica E. Teague, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: From the Phonograph to the Remix (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Jason Camlot, Phonopoetics: The Making of Early Literary Recordings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019); Marit J. McArthur, Georgia Zellou, and Lee M. Miller, “Beyond Poet Voice: Sampling the (Non-)Performance Styles of 100 American Poets,” Cultural Analytics 3, no. 1 (1998): For an argument that urges renewed discussion of “the specifically rhetorical construction of voice” and its rescue “from the discredited realm of mystification,” see Linda Gregerson, “On Voice as a Category of Analysis; or, Lyric Address,” Evaluations of US Poetry since 1950, Volume 1: Language, Form, and Music, ed. Robert von Hallberg and Robert Faggen (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2021), 19, 19-40.
  14. Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), xi. See Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, eds., The Lyric Theory Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
  15. Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry, xi.
  16. Allen Grossman, “Summa Lyrica: A Primer in the Commonplaces of Speculative Poetics,” in Allen Grossman and Mark Halliday, The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 214.
  17. “Song Sharks and their Victims: An Exposé,” Music Supervisor’s Journal 9.4 (1923).
  18. “My Twin and I” (n.d.), lyric by Phyllis Varisco, sung by Rod Keith (MSR 197).
  19. Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” 277.
  20. Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” 276.
  21. Allen Grossman, “Hart Crane and Poetry: A Consideration of Crane’s Intense Poetics With Reference to ‘The Return,’” ELH 48, no. 4 (1981): 843, 862.
  22. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1975), 215; Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” 277.
  23. Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” 277.
  24. Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” 213.
  25. “You’re So Vain” (1972), lyric and music by Carly Simon, No Secrets (Elektra).