By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
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 Southern California 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; and/or c) she yodels. (The fourth and most obvious reason, unspoken because it's messy, is that Jewel is a spicy blonde with a big rack, and most rock journalists are men.)
Anyway, her debut album (Pieces of You) ended up spending 114 weeks on the Billboard album chart, selling more than eight million copies in the process. The twee folkie from Alaska was suddenly a star, which meant that she was now free to say some completely ridiculous shit the press would willingly lap up. And say it she did: 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.
Apparently taking note of Jewel's ability to swoon people with gibberish, some genius over at HarperCollins publishing 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 that debuted on The New York Times best-seller list when it was released two weeks ago. As if all of that weren't hilarious enough already, there's the book itself. Jewel starts the preface by listing off a bunch of her heroes, a list 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 want to 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. Her soul also has buttercups, berries, neglected willow trees, and the unavoidable moths. (Note to poets: Look, moths fly into stuff. We know that. Thank you.) She actually uses the phrase "Oh, infinite embrace!"--apparently without irony.
The funniest part comes in her incisive revelations about the hazards of sunbathing, in a poem titled, appropriately enough, "Sun Bathing." She therein rebukes a father for trying to bond with his son by "ogling my breasts." OK, sister, pick an opinion. You're allowed to be angry about someone staring at your D-cups, and 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 two 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/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 little more than dunderheaded aspiring bohos with short attention spans; go to any coffeeshop 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" is often a matter of whom you want to believe, not what you see on the page. There are exceptions, of course, but they are exceptions; most self-styled 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
bits so they
like they're smart and
What better combination, then: an ascendant poser trying her hand in a medium overrun with frauds. Lest someone read the above pronouncements as solely the unconsidered ramblings of someone rushing to meet a deadline, the following test was conducted: Several people, the intelligence and wit of whom this writer would gladly testify to in court, 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 bravitas to attempt a reply, not one matched the correct poet to his/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 Bukowski;
2. Auden and Bukowski are bad poets;
3. The bulk of poetry is silly, and no one cares anyway.
Take your pick.