Ways of Making You Talk
Confessions of Jenny Lewis
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In the pages of The Nation, M.L. Rosenthal, reviewing Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, came up with this term that stuck: confessional poetry. Macha Rosenthal and I are from the same tribe. Our ritual, should we partake, is to confess once a year. We fast, we pray, we fuck up some more, repeat cycle. The term has become broader. To confess is to be on an episode of Law & Order. It is something beaten out of you. Or something from the KGB: We have ways of making you talk. Joni Mitchell disliked anyone comparing her to Sexton or Plath or even using the word “confessional.” Joni didn’t confess. She revealed. She disclosed. She was, she said, a penitent of spirit. When she wasn’t that, she was a reckless daughter.
But the idea of poetry or song as confession is still irresistible. Sometimes the shoe fits. I’m thinking of this while under the spell of Jenny Lewis, the only grown up child star who distinguished herself in rock and roll, at least since Rick Nelson. And every time I hear a Jenny Lewis song, I am in her confidence. We have never met, but I have been on the other end of her Twitter feed. At one point, during the bleakest moments of 2020, the Ides of March, the Quarantine Year, she wrote, “Remember getting laid? That was cool.”
A Jenny Lewis song is the morning after. When Edith Piaf sang “Non, je ne regrette rien,” you have to wonder if that was a good idea. It’s none of my business, but maybe she could have regretted a little more. Regret is Jenny Lewis’s brand, and her indoor voice is her outdoor voice. She recently went on the Tonight Show and sang this:
My forties are kicking my ass
And handing them to me in a margarita glass
I was infatuated with an older man
And then I dated a psychopath
So I'm 44 in 2020 and thank god I saved up some money
Time to ruminate like, what the fuck was that?
The f-bomb was deleted, but the rest of it was a bomb already. She got no couch time, so there was no time to explain what the fuck was that. But she didn’t need to. She was already on the couch. This is confessional. It’s out there, as confessional as a therapy session or an old fashioned phone call.
I used to think you could save me
I've been wandering lately
Heard she's having your baby
And everything's so amazing
It goes on and on and on and on
It does. It is the thing that you want, and the things that you can’t get. And it is what is standing in the way of it. It is the opposite of, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
But she's not me, she's easy
Is Jenny Lewis really not easy? She’s not. She tells you right here.
Remember the night I destroyed it all
When I told you I cheated,
And you punched through the drywall
I took you for granted
When you were all that I needed
You have to be so in love with Jenny Lewis you will put up with this—the cheating, the punching through the drywall, the taking for granted. But she was in the cast of Growing Pains. Can’t she still grow?
Or maybe we want to keep her there. “Emily Dickinson once called publication ‘the auction of the mind.’ Robert Lowell seems to regard it more as soul's therapy. The use of poetry for the most naked kind of confession grows apace in our day.” This was M.L. Rosenthal in 1959. He was making Lowell more therapeutic than Dickinson. It’s all archival, now. I heard after his NYU lectures, Rosenthal would ask if there were any questions. He would get one and say, “I should have asked: are there any intelligent questions.” Then he would leave! My Selected Poems and Four Plays by Yeats was edited by Rosenthal. His name is next to Yeats. Hyperion to a satyr! I’ve carried it with me for much of a lifetime. Are there are any intelligent questions?