SINGER-SONGWRITER, PERFORMER, and producer Joe Henry has been widely respected by his peers for three nearly decades while remaining mostly under the radar of the general public. Over more than a dozen albums, he’s pursued a stubbornly individualistic vision that’s also deeply rooted in tradition, while the albums he’s produced for other artists, including Bettye LaVette, Bonnie Raitt, and Solomon Burke, have drawn accolades and awards. He is currently working with the acoustic duo The Milk Carton Kids.
Henry recently “outted” himself in the press as a lover of poetry, whose blues-inflected songs grow directly out of the verse he reads. Until now, he has not spoken in detail about his poetic passions and influence.
Over the last year or so, Henry toured with Billy Bragg behind Shine a Light, their album dedicated to songs of trains and railroads. On January 13, Henry will appear at the Pico Union Project to promote his new LP, Thrum. This interview took place at a cafe in Pasadena that shares some of the singer’s old-school cool.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Joe, on your latest record you have finally come out of the closet as a poetry enthusiast. Give us a sense of when you first got interested in poetry.
JOE HENRY: In truth I became a deep reader of poetry around the same time that I began writing songs in earnest — that would be at about 14 or 15. So when I mentioned to the L.A. Times that I was sort of coming out, as it were, I wasn’t suggesting that this is a new engagement for me. For a long time I felt like it was something I wasn’t allowed to talk about.
There’s a sense, mostly among people who don’t read poetry, of a hierarchy: songwriting lives here and poetry lives above it. I learned that that was what people meant when they said that I was “a poet”: “I think this is really pretty, and I have no idea what you're going on about, and I’m not sure I’m supposed to.” As if I was being deliberately obscure.
That speaks to the fact that in our culture right now — in my lifetime — as an American, we’re not really brought up to read poetry. We don’t know how to value it.
I’m not going to shy away from the fact that, to some readers, I’ll sound a little aloof and full of myself. They’ll think I’m giving myself a field promotion.
This has not always been the case, but in the United States, in our time, poetry is often seen as being sort of effete — “sissy stuff.” I wonder if this was part of the reason you kept it to yourself.
I wouldn’t use that terminology, but I always did feel that my generation — outside of a certain group of friends — wasn’t trained to read and appreciate and value poetry in and of itself. So there’s already this notion of it being sort of peripheral, outdated, wispy, and disconnected from the earthy business of living. When in fact the greatest poets are not only tremendously grounded, they are describing the relationship between the earthly and the sacred. I don’t mean just in religious terms. I mean in the spiritual terms of being a sparking, living creature — knowing that at some point we will cease to be. All the poets have tried to address what it means to live with the mortal inevitable.
If we look at your British “equivalent,” a musician about your age who is not upper class, Billy Bragg, with whom you’ve toured, or at Richard Thompson, who is about a decade older, I think there’s probably a lot less anxiety of influence, when it comes to poetry. I think for British people poetry is a much bigger part of daily life.
I remember I happened to be in the company of two Irish people in Switzerland, having just that morning departed from Dublin when Seamus Heaney died, and sitting up at night after the show. They started reciting Seamus Heaney verse at length. Not because they were particularly ravenous pursuers of poetry, but because they grew up reading it, in elementary school, and that has value. They can go back and recite Heaney and Yeats in the way that I can recite a Woody Guthrie lyric. Poetry was presented to them, when they were blooming young people, as having real importance within their culture. You learned it the way I learned good manners, being raised by Southern parents.
Let’s go back to your original connection. When you were a teenager, who were the poets you were reading, and what did you think you were hearing and seeing in their work?
Without question, my point of entry was William Carlos Williams. He remains a mountain for me. What struck me, and allowed me passage into that world, was that he was conversational. He was a man who lived in the world.
He was a New Jersey doctor, who went from house to house.
He was. He wasn’t someone who sequestered himself away; the danger there is that you write poetry about poetry. He led a life, and wrote about that life. I was determined to see no distinction between what I did as a musician and the way I lived my life. I don’t see being a musician as just an occupation; it’s my identity. The same as being a doctor. When you’re a doctor out in the world, even if you’re standing on the golf course, and someone on the green next to you keels over with a heart attack, suddenly you’re a doctor.
Right there in tandem with Williams — and both came courtesy of my older brother David, who has been my lifelong mentor — was Wallace Stevens. And with Stevens the lesson I learned, and took very much to heart, is that I don’t think Stevens was taking pre-formed thought and trying to translate it into the music of language — he was listening to language as music, and following it, to hear what it had to say. Just like Joyce, he was listening to the music of language, to hear what it meant. Language is leading him to thought. It’s the way I live as a songwriter and poet. The act of writing is listening and learning — it’s how I find out.
What were some of the Stevens poems that struck you as a kid? His work is sometimes opaque and abstract.
Absolutely. But my point of entry, and I think it would work for anybody trying to go in, was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It’s abstract and it’s not. You can live in the weather of that particular piece. For me, it did exactly what my favorite songs did — it was specific enough that I felt rooted in the particulars. But the doors and windows were open for my evolution as a reader. I can go back and read it today. The poem has evolved for me. It’s not static. It’s not just different because I’m a different person. The work is in flux with me. It’s like listening to Ellington. It’s not an artifact — it’s a living engagement.
Did you ever, as a young man or later, get into “Sunday Morning”? After being baffled by some of Stevens, that was my way in. I found him beautiful and colorful and perplexing until I read that one.
I wrote a song in my very early days, don’t think I ever recorded it, called “Plowing on Sunday” — definitely written within the conscious ether of that poem. Right along that same time, the other person who became important to me was e e cummings. When I made my record Blood from Stars, a few albums ago, I thought of it as a blues record even though I don’t observe blues form. But I was listening to a lot of country blues music and listening to a lot of early cummings that I’d not read in many years. And I had the absolutely conscious thought as I was doing so that cummings was also listening to country blues music — wanting to observe sex, love, death, God, all of it, all at the same table, in real time.
Sounds like Robert Johnson.
I was gonna say, Robert Johnson was the direct through-line: incredibly witty, self-aware, liberated from ego, tapped into life and death the way Blake is — I don’t mean just Blind Blake, I mean William Blake … Understanding yourself as a divine spark held in check by a mortal frame. That’s what makes it so terrifying, and jubilant at the same time.
Since you first emerged as a musician, you’ve been known as a deeply American figure — a sort of roots figure, grounded in country, folk, jazz, and the blues. Your first poets were Williams, Stevens, and cummings. But I have a hunch that some of the writers who’ve been important to you were neither American nor writing in English. Have there been figures from Europe, South America, Japan, elsewhere that have spoken to you?
The other American poet who’s been important to me is James Wright. I don’t think he’s talked about nearly enough. He’s the bridge to me, as an American, to someone like Rilke, who is up there on the mountain. Wright was a bit of a mystic, and as soon as he began doing the work he was meant to do, there is no poem that doesn’t tremble on the edge of mortal life looking into the other — not only at what might follow, but also at the way being alive now insists on our engagement with the other. There’s a brand-new biography, Jonathan Blunk’s James Wright: A Life in Poetry, which I think is exemplary.
I think of Wright as part of a generation of American poets who were reading poetry in translation — because it feels like there are influences from South America, perhaps Germany, and there’s a surrealist quality to some of his work, maybe French, alongside the small-town and countrified Ohio place names and Sherwood Anderson enclaves. It reminds me of Ancient Chinese poetry too. He’s deeply influenced by Chinese poets and haiku, and that impulse to frame a mortal life around all that is mystically attending. Keep in mind that James Wright was doing translations from his college days. He was doing translations for his own edification, as a way of understanding the architecture, and what was happening with the musicality of language, how to respect language as music. The Spanish poets, like García Lorca, and prose writers, like Borges, were very important to him.
And James Wright — I’m not the first to say this — was someone to whom Whitman mattered a lot, as he mattered to me. In looking at the natural world, we’re tempted to think of it as the concrete, but to Wright and Whitman, the natural world affirms that there is more going on than we can get our hands around. The natural word insists on that.
Part of what you’re saying is that the natural world is beyond the ego, beyond human life. There’s something going on beyond us.
Yes — and if we’re true, as writers … I’m not trying to write songs that amplify my persona as an artist. What I really, really mean to do — and it’s not because I don’t have an ego — is to write in such a way that my persona disappears into the work. If I’ve written a song as I had intended, I don’t want anyone to picture my face when they hear it. I want the song to take over. If that happens, my ego is perfectly sated. And I think Whitman was writing that way about the natural world. He wanted to be seduced by it — and he was.
A German poet writing a hundred years ago seems very far from the way we understand your taste and your life story. What matters to you about Rilke? He’s kind of irresistible, isn’t he? How old were you?
I was about 20, 22. I just knew he was liberated. In that particular moment I was looking to a number of artists who were liberated. It’s obvious to talk about Bob Dylan. After a very brief moment, I didn’t want to write like him; I didn’t think I could or should. But I wanted to be liberated that way. I would cite Charlie Parker as a primary figure, even though I don’t work like he worked, my music sounds nothing like his. But I was charged by the fact that he found a process that allowed him to be liberated. I wanted to be free the way Bird was free, free the way John Cage was free. And I wanted to be free, absolutely, the way García Márquez was free. I remember where I was walking when I realized I would view my life before One Hundred Years of Solitude and after, just as I saw my life before Fellini’s 8 1/2 and after. Thelonious Monk did that to me at 15. I didn’t even know it was jazz. It was just, “Whatever this is, it changes things for me.”
So was it Rilke’s short, imagistic poems, or those sweeping elegies?
No, it wasn’t the elegies. It was The Book of Hours. In the same way Williams got me, I am still wildly attracted to poems that are kind of three stanzas, or two. No matter how much I write — and I’ve written essays that are longer, and a book with my brother — I am mostly writing songs. So I’m attracted to people who are concise, and need that to feel complete. If I write a postcard to someone, I don’t just write until I run out of space. I need to say what I mean, within the context of that space. It’s like the way a haiku offers power and authority, no matter what you say in it. The blues offers power no matter what I say in a blues structure.
In total, in The Book of Hours, he was talking about a relationship to God that I understood to be free of any church. Back to the natural world as cathedral, the way I understand my relationship to the divine. Not because someone has explained it to me, or handed me a litany of rules to keep me safely on this path. The path is not confined by anything. I think I read in The Book of Hours that he was standing somewhere in that weather, in relation to the divine, without the stagnant clutter of organized religion. And in my late teens and early 20s, having grown up in a very structured religious household, that was incredibly liberating to me. It was like listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. There was another way to understand my relationship to the divine other than the one that had been handed to me. By deeply loving parents. But that was never going to be my language.