COLE PORTER: Selected Lyrics

Edited by Robert Kimball
The Library of America ($20)

by Spencer Dew

Even educated fleas recognize Cole Porter as a ubiquitous presence in American culture, and now the Library of America's American Poetry Project—having already published the likes of Whitman, Poe, Lazarus, and Brooks—assembled a selection of his lyrics. Editor Robert Kimball—who has co-written a book on reading lyrics—only addresses this decision by saying that the book can only "provide a partial impression of these songs." He also fails to speak of the purpose, justification, or imagined audience of this volume, which clearly shouldn't be anyone's introduction to Porter but also shouldn't be of interest only to Porter aficionados. Ideally, it should be an appendix to something else (perhaps the DVD of the American Masters documentary on Porter which mixes biography and context with plenty of audio and performance footage). But the songs do not suffer equally for being on the page; there are plenty whose tunes are part of our collective humming consciousness, plus those (like "Night and Day," for instance) that are so masterfully constructed as to sing themselves.

And there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing Porter's words, marked not only by an ear for sound and a wandering eye for innuendo but also by that American aesthetic of slathering trademarked names over every available surface. Ironic recognition of consumerism dovetails with the intoxication of advertisement, so that questions like "Would the glowworm trade her spark / For the latest Dunhill lighter?" are only partly tongue-in-cheek. He finds his lover as spanking as "the pants on a Roxy usher." While love is rumored to be both abstract and inexpressible, Porter gets an awful lot of play from the sheer accumulation of nouns. He doesn't just draw comparisons, he constructs museums: "prints by Hiroshigi, / Edelweiss from off the Rigi, / Jacobean soup tureens, Early types of limousines."

Those lines are from an early hit, though you have to flip to the copyright pages to get the date (1916). The book offers no chronology, no discography, and no notes; the ten-page introduction offers only a handful of anecdotes. Floating down the Rhine with a boatful of friends, Porter asks for help brainstorming what would become "You're the Top," where, yes, the beloved ends up being compared to everything from "Mahatma Gandhi" to "cellophane." We also learn that "Begin the Beguine" "was inspired by a native dance in the village of Kalabahai on the island of Alor in the Dutch East Indies," a phrase which sounds like a Porter lyric but which, in the end, tells us nothing. Granted, we might not need to know if Porter was ever in Alor, but there is so much else we do need to know.

Porter's lyrics are a pastiche of pop culture, and while readers can be expected to know of Dorothy Parker and FDR, many of the references are obscure and so, many of the tasty jokes occluded. In the simulations of contemporary nightclub banter there's much more than humor happening. "Let's heap some hot profanities on Hitler's inhumanities, / Let's argue if insanity's the cause of his inanities." The rhythm of that line echoes into our time, raising questions about Porter's musical legacy that also go unaddressed.

Kimball includes Irving Berlin's riotous parody of "You're the Top" as if it were merely an extra verse, which cheats readers of understanding while giving them the funniest lines in the book: "You're a high colonic . . . You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use . . . You're King Kong's penis, / You're self-abuse." More frustrating are those instances where alternative verses are offered sans explanation. All we have for the ending of "You've Got That Thing" is an asterisk and the word "Or" to indicate that the saccharine and seemingly misplaced

You've got that love, and such a lot
It makes me think you're prepared for what
Any stork might bring

could be, alternatively,

You've got ideas inside your head
That make me order an extra bed
With an extra spring.

All lyrics are not created equal, and these read as different as a "kick from cocaine" versus (in a scrubbed-up and drugged-down version) "a bop-type refrain.

The mission of this series is to provide small, attractive, inexpensive books of selected poetry, though $20 surely pushes the limits of "inexpensive." Ultimately, of course, if a selection does nothing but whet a hunger, that act must be applauded. In that regard, this book has value as an infuriatingly brief glimpse, a teaser that will prompt those who read it to dig up and dig into more Porter, and that's the top.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006