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Oh, Silver Deities! 

Jewel's poetry smacks into a screen door like, uh, a moth

Wednesday, Jun 10 1998
Few pop-culture developments have been so inevitable as a book of poetry by Jewel, rock music's reigning queen of dime-store spirituality. A ripe tomato of a woman and a rotten apple of a songwriter, Jewel emerged from a SoCal coffeehouse a few years back armed with a canon of slight folk songs that people tended to praise for one of the following reasons: a) Jewel grew up in Alaska; b) she lived in a van for a while; or c) she yodels. (The correct answer is d) Jewel is a spicy blonde with a big rack, and most rock journalists are men.) Anyway, her debut album (Pieces of You) ended up fluttering about the Billboard album chart for 114 weeks, selling over 8 million copies in the process; the twee folkie from Alaska was suddenly a star, which meant not only that she was now free to voice whatever whimsical notions entered her impressionable mind but also that some journalist would jot them down and rush them into print, his thoughts all the while on Jewel's decolletage. Find an interview with her that doesn't mention something about standing on a hilltop and, like, breathing in life with all its wondrous hues, and you've found something slightly more rare than a good song by the Wallflowers.

Taking note of Jewel's ability to swoon people with gibberish, a canny accountant over at HarperCollins signed her to a two-book deal for a reported $1.75 million. The first result of that deal is A Night Without Armor, a 136-page collection of her poems. Armor debuted at No. 18 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Jewel starts out the preface by listing off a bunch of her heroes, a lineup that includes "Bukowsky" and "Tom Waites," two artists she apparently didn't like enough to figure out how to spell their names. She goes on to add that poetry is essential to "unfolding the vision and the spiritual realm of our lives, to exposing our souls."

If so, then Jewel might wanna look into getting a hunting rifle, because she's got way too many birds flying around in her soul. They're everywhere; she listens "to the sermon of sparrows," her lover's touch is like "the slow migration of birds," she frees herself from the "wings which for so long held me aloft," and on and on. But that's not all. No, sir. Her soul also has buttercups, berries, neglected willow trees, and moths. (Note to poets: Look, moths fly into stuff. We know that now. Thank you.) She actually uses the phrase "Oh, infinite embrace!," apparently without irony. (The pedantic will note that Jewel is mixing up "O" as in "O Pioneers!" and "oh" as in "Oh, What a Night" or "Oh, a-hunting we will go.")

The funniest part comes in her incisive revelations about the hazards of sunbathing. Her poem on this subject is called "Sun Bathing." She therein rebukes a father for trying to bond with his son by "ogling my breasts." OK, sister: You're allowed to be angry about someone staring at your D-cups, or you're allowed to wear a see-through dress to the Grammys -- but, sorry, not both. Especially when you write, in a later poem, that you hope your grandmother's breasts were as admired as yours are, "two silver deities/ two shining steeples/ giving testament to the sky." Who wouldn't look after that announcement? (The best way to hear these poems is on the audiocassette version of A Night Without Armor, which finds Jewel valiantly keeping a straight face while reading them.)

But really, who are we kidding here -- Jewel and poetry were made for each other. The popular image of a poet is much the same as Jewel's, as outlined in her preface: He or she "stirs the divine within us and whispers all the things that there are no words for," and other such nonsense. The fact is that most quote-unquote poets are encephalitic hothouse flowers who confuse simply having emotions with the ability to actually write interestingly about them. Go to any coffee shop for a Friday night reading, and you'll find it filled with small minds communing over lazy metaphors and forced meaning; flip through most poetry anthologies and you're inevitably met with little insight and even less sense. To the untrained eye, the difference between the "established," "respected" poet and the "trite," "amateur" one is often a matter of who you want to believe, not what you see on the page. There are exceptions, of course, but most poets do not wrench truth from brevity and allusion, they simply apply math to them. Specifically, division: Taking simple words and

breaking them up into
little small bits
so they look
like they're smart and

What better combination, then: an ascendant poser trying her hand in a medium overrun by frauds.

Lest someone read the above pronouncements as unconsidered anti-intellectualism, the following test was conducted: Several people, chosen on the basis of their intelligence and wit, were sent three verses of poetry: one by Charles Bukowski, one by W.H. Auden, and one by Jewel. (In fairness, Jewel was the only writer whose best work was chosen; but still.) Of the 10 people with enough courage to attempt a reply, not one matched the correct poet to his or her work. There are several conclusions one can draw from this:

1) At her best, Jewel is a poet of the
same distinction as Auden and
2) Auden and Bukowski are bad poets;
3) The bulk of poetry is silly, and no
one cares anyway.

Take your pick.

About The Author

Keven McAlester


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