Listening to Jeff Zentner’s new album A Season Lost, I had a feeling that Jeff would be an interesting person to talk to and get to know. And, I was right. When I asked Jeff if he would write a “Songwriter’s Point of View” he enthusiastically agreed, and asked if he could right about his favorite poet instead of a favorite album. And once I read about his inspiration, I definitely caught a glimpse into his songwriting, clearly seeing this inspiration in his lyrics. But not only can his inspiration be found in lyrics, it can also be felt. While reading this post, I could hear his songs playing as the soundtrack to each and every poem written by Joe Bolton. So, I encourage you to read on about Jeff’s inspiration and get to know him and his songs.
I discovered the Kentucky poet Joe Bolton about five years ago or so. I had played a show in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a good friend, Jonathan Treadway, himself a brilliant poet, recommended him to me. His aim was true. The first poem I ever read by Joe Bolton was this:
Seven miles south of anywhere
You’d rather be, it is autumn
What sweetened shrivels,
What shriveled falls,
And what fell is leaf-rot,
A sick rich scent on the air.
You are paling, you are bored,
You are zipping up your jacket
And walking into a dynamo
Of twilight and raw wind,
Tossing your hair as a brief bruise
Of pink scores the horizon
Seven miles north, below the lights
From the bars and dance halls
Of small towns, the Ohio swells
With a cargo of barges,
And catfish twist through the bones
Of what never bothered to rise
These words hummed through me like I was a tuning fork. I resonated at exactly this frequency. I couldn’t get my hands on his book quickly enough. His poems have been collected in a single volume called The Last Nostalgia. When I got it, I could only read in small doses, such was the beauty and heartbreak it contained. Joe Bolton wrote of the landscapes and the heartscapes that I knew. He wrote of a building up and breaking down. He wrote of the beginnings and the death of love and life. He wrote about rivers and the pale twilight of winter evenings in the South. He wrote about desire and nights alive with the smell of wild honey. His poems were filled with wonder and despair in equal measure. His words made the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
…The old and the new songs of heartbreak sound the same
It’s only when the needle grinds in the grooves
That a sadness greater than your own comes on,
And the dead begin to live again, in you
– “The Prototypical Ghosts”
Joe Bolton is virtually unkown. You will never hear him mentioned in the same breath as other poetry greats such as Rilke, Rimbaud, Gilbert, and Whitman. But you should. He has soared to their heights.
…And when the sun, slipping
Behind a staggered row of pines
In Northern Mississippi or Tennessee
In late August,
Hangs the needles in its distant, momentary fire,
Then lets them go,
And the bickering cries of the gathering starlings
Rise in praise of the falling dark.
– “A Hymn to the Body”
I was asked to write this “Songwriter’s Point of View,” which normally features songwriters talking about the work of other songwriters. Make no mistake, there are many brilliant songwriters whom I love and who provide me with great inspiration. In fact, some of my favorites on earth appear on my latest album. But when it comes time to truly go to the well, so to speak, I look to my poets for inspiration. And Joe Bolton is supreme among them. I believe that a song should have lyrics that can stand on their own, and be read as poetry, without music. Lately, there is no music more beautiful to me than beautiful words in front of my eyes and the sound of wind in my ears. The Last Nostalgia is my lodestar for every phrase I write. It is gospel to me. I have never written quite the same way since. The title track from my album The Dying Days of Summer is a tribute to Joe Bolton.
After the many-colored but mostly blue
Seasons of our two solitudes – the hours
Of longing and the flight from longing, the years
Spent remembering as if memory were true -
We stand together on a balcony
Above the city of losses, the city of lights
Bouncing back off a starless sky, the city
Where we’ll try to save this night from the death of nights.
Ours has become a life in which the self
And the self’s other begin to anticipate the chances
Taken in the name of desire. Desire:
That sweet song the body sings to itself,
Or under the best of circumstances
The song two bodies sing to each other
– “The Name of Desire”
…Now, coming back to the place in autumn,
You watch rose- and wine-colored leaves swirl down,
And, seeing the stones now barely break the ground,
Think: So this is what it does to things, time.
The creek leaf-choked, you can hear the grass die.
Under the clouds, come. Sit. Hear the grass die.
– “Making Love in a Colored Graveyard”
Joe Bolton committed suicide in March 1990. He was 28.
Stream and buy Jeff Zentner’s A Season Lost
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Buy Joe Bolton’s The Last Nostalgia & Days of Summer Gone
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