Disproportionately Long Post on Rodney Koeneke’s “Names of the Hits (of Diane Warren)”

Anyone who’s ever flipped through the index of first lines in the back of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems has thought, “Hey, these would make a pretty good poem just like this.” In case you haven’t, here’s a random sample:

     I am afraid to own a body
     I am alive I guess
     I am ashamed - I hide
     I asked no other thing
     I bet with every wind that blew
     I breathed enough to take the trick

But it takes a practiced eye—the eye of a trained Flarfist—to have that same thought while browsing the titles of hit songs by Diane Warren, which is what apparently inspired Rodney Koeneke to produce this little chapbook. Warren, incidentally, being the “Emily Dickinson of Pop” according to a prominently displayed quote on her Wikipedia page.

Listening to the CD of Warren’s songs that comes along with the book, I have to question that comparison—songs like the KISS-recorded “(You Make Me) Rock Hard” are just as clever lyrically as that title sounds; or actually a little less so. But in the chapbook itself, which takes probably under a pop-perfect three minutes to read, Koeneke uses a more or less alphabetical list of titles beginning with “I” or “you” to tell a dumbly affecting little love story. Here’s the turning point, right before the narrative shifts from the honeymoon phase of the I section to the painful breakup of the you section:

     I Feel Beautiful
     I Get Weak
     I Hear Your Voice
     I Just Wanna Cry
     I Keep Hoping
     I Know You Too Well
     I Learned From The Best
     I Love You, Goodbye

And, if you really listen to the compilation of songs—or better, just kind of half listen; like squint while you listen—the same kind of unfiltered pathos comes through. In fact, these songs are totally fucking pathetic, full of swarming, smothering desperation, like the dick-wilting one-upmanship of the Trisha Yearwood jam “I’ll Still Love You More”: “And for every kiss I’ll give you back a hundred times / And for everything you do I’ll just do more.”

(Stick around for the delightfully wtf shirtless, headless back rub that Trisha scores around 1:58, by the way.)

Come to think of it, maybe that kind of emotional extremism isn’t so far from some of Dickinson’s love poems. But Dickinson was lonely and weird and obscure; the fact that Warren is one of the most successful songwriters of our time suggests that these sentiments aren’t just hers, they’re ours—this blinding crucible of nuancelessness is our ideal conception of love. And, before I get too carried away, I should point out that the schmaltz-addled, love-crazed speaker/singer that emerges from the songs isn’t so unsympathetic. She’s the same wounded, needy romantic that we all remember being, hiding out beneath the covers of some very slick production.

That’s the scary upshot here. What Koeneke (along with Alli Warren, who edited the mix) has made is a nice little piece of social critique through the vehicle of rock criticism in the form of a conceptual poem. It’s a hell of a lot to get across in thirteen songs and thirteen matching poems, all without writing a single word yourself. But then that, to me, is the beauty of the conceptual poet as appropriator/arranger—as much can be said with a tiny book like this or with a huge tome like Day, it’s all about the efficiency of the gesture. In that moment when you saw the poem in Dickinson’s first lines, it was already written; all the potential content was there. To be as good as Rodney Koeneke, you just need the eye to spot poems hidden in less obvious, more revealing places.