On November 10, Taylor Swift released two magazines along with her sixth studio album Reputation, each of which features an original poem by Swift ("Why She Disappeared" and "If You're Anything Like Me"). Here, Harvard English professor Stephanie Burt, author of Advice from the Lights: Poems, The Poem Is You, and Belmont: Poems (and a fan of Swift's music), critiques the pop star's writing. "I’d much rather talk about Taylor Swift than grade papers," she says over the phone. "But that’s what they pay me for."
What’s the difference between song lyrics and poetry?
Song lyrics are written for a singer to sing with music. The kinds of poetry that I care about most and write about most and think about most often do not require music or a singer. They don’t make me think, “Oh, I want to hear someone sing that.” They do what they do just with the words, and usually they do what they do if you just read them and hear them aloud in your head.
And most of my favorite pop lyrics and rock lyrics wouldn’t do much for me if I didn’t know how they sound when the singer sings them and when there’s music and when there are chords underneath.
What’s your overall critique of Taylor's poetry?
The Taylor Swift poems are emotionally interesting ways to think about her life and her self-image and her emotions—I don’t think they really work for me as poems. They speak to what she’s doing as a songwriter. They show her ear for just the sounds of words, but they don’t do some other things that poems do that make me want to re-read them. They should mean a lot to people who care about what she’s doing. I just don’t think they stand up on their own in the way that my favorite poets do.
What doesn’t work?
They have bits that are clichés, that just really don’t work. The "chink in the armor she never knew she needed”? That’s not working. “Avoiding old haunts and sidestepping shiny pennies”—why do the pennies need to be shiny? Does Taylor step on pennies that are dulled with time? There’s not really a lot of thinking about the way the words fit together.
There are bits that would totally work as lyrics for pop songs, including the kind that she’s so good at writing and co-writing. “When she fell, she fell apart” is quite a good opening for a song. And rhyming “apart” with “sidewalk chalk,” which emphasizes the vowel sounds, is the kind of rhyme you could really get across if you have the right kind of singer. “If you’re anything like me, you’ve grown to hate your pride / to love your thighs / and no amount of friends at 25”—look at the long “i” [use] there. That’s the songwriting talent for putting vowel sounds together.
“Blew away with the winds that took all of her fair-weather friends”—that would be a great lyric. This is a talented pop lyricist working in a form that doesn’t feel like the form for her.
It’s kind of cool that she encourages people to write poetry by example. I don’t know that she’s encouraging people to read a lot of poetry that is old or that is challenging or that is not by white girls.
Which poem do you like better?
“If You’re Anything Like Me,” because it’s more like a song, and she’s a great songwriter. She’s working with an extended metaphor in [the other one]—that’s not what she’s great at. “If You’re Anything Like Me” made me want to go to a piano or go to a guitar and write a song. The other one, where she sort of falls on the sidewalk, is about how she feels now, reacting to attacks on her right now. Which a lot of people feel she’s too sensitive about—like, come on, you have all the money in the world, you have friends, why do you care? And “If You’re Anything Like Me” explains—and you can believe or not believe, as a piece of autobiography, the explanation—why someone who’s so successful and so powerful would have such thin skin.
“…no amount of friends at 25 / Will fill the empty seats / At the lunch tables of your past / The teams that picked you last…/But Darling, you keep trying.” This is someone saying that the operations of patriarchy and the ways that teen social cliquishness works on everyone, even the most popular kids, makes it very hard to see yourself as successful. Any sort of psychic armor you grow later is going to be brittle.
“If you’re anything like me, you never wanted to lock your door, your secret garden gate, or your diary drawer”—that’s quite good. Again, good in the way that songwriting is good.
Does any word choice stand out?
They have the clarity [of songwriting]. They have conversational words—there are no words in there that are hard to sing or hard to say. There are poems that get their power from being really raw and from working with a small set of words, with only the words that we say in daily life. Poems that really seem like the author could have been 14. The first example that comes to mind is literally a poem about being 14, and it’s a poem called “Hanging Fire” by Audre Lorde. Stevie Smith is another good example of someone who is a terrific poet who's writing in a way that seems naïve.
But [Taylor’s poetry] has the ear of someone who’s thinking about how to sing words.
Did anything feel inauthentic to you?
There’s some sense in which careless writing or hasty writing or clichéd writing is always inauthentic. Then there’s another sense in which clichés make something seem raw and real and not polished. So the same thing can seem authentic in one way and inauthentic in another. Both have clichés, but “If You’re Anything Like Me” — it’s her reaching out to her fans and acknowledging that she’s writing as a public figure and not trying to give you biographical details or extended description, or using the skills that a novelist has, which she doesn’t have.
Elizabeth Bishop, one of the great poets of the 20th century, painted paintings. They’re interesting paintings. They’re not great paintings; no one things they’re great paintings. We look at them because they’re related to seeing the world that goes on in Bishop’s poems. And I honestly think it’s great when people who are wonderful at an art form try another art form. Because the art form they’re trying helps us care about the art form they’re great at. But we shouldn’t’ expect them to be great at the other art form, and so far it seems like [Taylor] is not.
The last thing that seems worth saying: Many people who don’t read poetry a lot write poetry themselves and show the poetry perhaps to their friends, because it’s a way of expressing a feeling or figuring out how they feel, and there’s nothing wrong with using verse that way. It’s okay to write poetry that you yourself think probably won’t be very good—if “good” means that people like me will love it or strangers will read it in 50 years.
One of the worst things about me having the job that I have, which is a job I love and what I do well, is every time I tell somebody “this is the reason I think this poem is great, this is the reason I think this poem has lasted 300 years, this is the reason I think this poem, which was published last week, will last for year 300 years”—it gets out there what I want to say about the poem and poems, but it also runs the risk of creating the misimpression that if poetry is not great, great, great, then it’s not worth writing. And I would hate to have the “these poems aren’t very good as poems” reaction to Taylor Swift’s poems prevent people who want to try writing poetry or who have been writing poetry for reasons of self expression [from doing so]. I’d hate to discourage anyone from writing poetry. I do want to encourage people to read poetry and to read poetry by people who aren’t like them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.