Winona State University Winonan, April 21, 1993

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Winona State Univ. Winonan
  • 1993 April 21

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Costello sets poetry to music in the Juliet Letters

Susan Bisco

Song Lyrics are not often considered works of "literature." However, when a CD is released entitled The Juliet Letters, the possibility of poetry is opened up. The inspiration behind The Juliet Letters is a professor in Verona, Italy, who answered letters addressed to Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet fame. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet took this idea and created a set of lyrics, all of which are letters written to various people, or personal notes to no one in particular. The result is a bit chaotic, but interesting, and in a few cases, touching.

One of the ways to judge the quality of a poem is by looking at whether or not it retains interest and expands in meaning after more than one reading. The Juliet Letters does this. An initial reading of the lyrics as poetry, without listening to the music accompaniment, leaves a disjointed, bitter impression. Each "letter" is written very much in the same style, with virtually no punctuation, and seemingly random thoughts loosely woven together with very few concrete details for the mind to latch onto.

However, further readings of the individual letters allows the fragments to piece together into a whole, but still shadowy, impression. Costello says in a prologue to the lyrics "the language of most letters swings wildly from the lyrical to the banal and from the courteous to the confessional." He applies this to most of the letters. One, "Swine," begins with "You're a swine and I'm saying that's an insult to the pig..." A few lines later he talks about "consecrated ground." The varied language usage is in part what gives the letters such a disjointed, awkward feel. However, this is intentional and serves to keep careful readers alert. The final letter, "The Birds Will Be Singing," begins with the lofty, "Banish all dismay, Extinguish every sorrow," then continues with the ignoble, "Eternity stinks, my darling. That's no joke."

This odd approach toward poetry creates many unusual lines, some beautiful, like, "I kiss the air around the place that should be your face", from "Who Do You Think You Are?" Some are just fun, like word play, "A twister or dupe will bamboozle you or hoodwink you." This line is followed closely with a meaningful line, "And you'll start to see double in fishes and bread," from "This Offer is Unrepeatable."

The problem with this approach to poetry is that it is the lines or sometimes individual images that jump out and grab a reader, though they may not adhere to the lines around them. Costello calls the lyrics in The Juliet Letters "unconscious poetry," which they are. It is the little pearls of "unconscious poetry" that hold the rest of the lines together and create a kind of awkward whole.

This wholeness creates shadowy characters, for example, a jealous woman in "For Other Eyes," who writes:

One day we'll laugh about this or maybe we'll curse
But there's one thing and it's making it worse

And it's the lack of forgiveness that I can't disguise
No matter how well he lies

A bitter old woman comes to life in "I Almost Had a Weakness," saying, "When I die the cats and dogs will jump up and down / And you little swines will get nothing..." One letter doesn't create a character, but does emerge as recognizable junk mail in "This Offer is Unrepeatable." This letter is one of the longer and more unusual, taking full advantage of the varieties of language Costello uses throughout, so that it serves up more meaning than a lot of the other letters.

Of course, it does not seem fair to look at lyrics without taking the music into consideration, because the music often makes the most mundane lyrics beautiful. However, in the case of The Juliet Letters it is not only possible, but also worthwhile. In the introduction, Costello does provide brief outlines and explanations of most of the letters, indicating that he does place great emphasis on the words he and the members of the Brodsky Quartet have written. Costello notes that in writing the lyrics, there was an "absence of much of the crafty language of the songwriter," in order to "assemble strong and varied texts." It is true that the text of The Juliet Letters does not read like other lyrics, with "repeat chorus" intruding only occasionally.

As mentioned before, The Juliet Letters swell with more meaning with each reading, a mark of poetry. Unfortunately, that meaning may only be a spark in an isolated line or image, not necessarily an entire letter as a coherent whole. In addition, without the aid of Costello's introductory explanations of the letters, many would be obscure, random puzzles. It is possible he should have left out the individual explanations and let the readers puzzle them through. Despite the persistent somber tone, The Juliet Letters is an entertaining, though sometimes obscure, text.


Winonan, April 21, 1993

Susan Bisco reviews The Juliet Letters.


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1993-04-21 Winona State University Winonan page 11.jpg
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