Ugly Duckling Presse
American Songbook, in its author’s words, is “an unconscious response to the broad spectrum of American recorded vocal music.” It celebrates and explores nearly a century of recorded song through experimental, surrealist-influenced poems, each titled after the song on which it is based.
Each of Michael Ruby’s poems in American Songbook utilizes the lyrics of recorded songs in combination with Ruby’s own subjective, linguistic response to the recording. The work’s intellectual commitment to both the process and the content of surrealism is clear throughout; Ruby’s poems record the inner reverberations of a subjective, chaotic, internal landscape. No maps or guide rails are provided.
It was only when I, determined, sat down to read Ruby’s work while listening to the corresponding songs that I began to connect to the shapes the poems defined. Reading the songs and the poems in tandem mapped Ruby’s work as a sort of secret, psychical transcript on top of the songs; the differences between the original songs and the poems stood out then in emotional relief. (It is worth noting that Ruby’s choice of songs is both excellent and diverse.)
I asked Ruby whether he intended his poems to be read like this, concurrently with the recordings, and this was apparently not his intention. But he seemed happy I’d done it—open to the idea that his experimentation had necessitated mine. Of the freedom of process in his work, Ruby told me, “I wanted to have complete artistic freedom with canonical cultural materials. I guess maybe that is one thing I want to be taken away from the book, that we can be as free as we want with any materials.”
And do popular song and surrealism, as forms, hold for Ruby an intrinsic connection? None but a subjective one—but this is an emphatically subjective book. Of his choice of form and subject, Ruby told me, “I saw all this material there in front of me, the history of American recorded vocal music. It’s endless; it’s gorgeous. It’s probably the country’s greatest artistic achievement. And out of all that, there were these songs that I somewhat arbitrarily wanted to work with. And I wanted to work with them in my way of working. If I were a sculptor, I would work with them differently, or if I were a composer, I would work with them differently. If I was a different kind of poet, I would work with them differently. But this was the way that I was happiest to work with the songs.”
As a songwriter and popular song obsessive myself, I was strangely delighted to find myself newly lost, through Ruby’s exploration, in what I usually consider familiar territory. For the reader in search of a new critical understanding of popular song sui generis, American Songbook will likely disappoint. But what is important about this work is that it celebrates our most potent cultural materials by subjecting them to experimentation, exuberantly. For readers who endorse that kind of reverent chaos, whether it is navigable or not, this is a noteworthy text.
K. Rose DeSteno
DeSteno is a songwriter, performer, writer, and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area.