POETRY VS LYRICS: The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle (constant and sometimes only member of The Mountain Goats) has long been praised for his simplistic yet evocative writing style. I’m not going out on a limb here telling you that his lyrics are an experience. Honestly there’s just something about writing that doesn’t have to dress itself up — writing that is unashamedly matter-of-fact — that really hits home for me. Darnielle epitomizes this.

Today, I don’t want to tell you that John Darnielle is a good writer. I want to tell you that he is a poet.

“My father would tell me if I wasn’t writing in meter verse, it wasn’t poetry,” Darnielle said in a New York Magazine interview in 2009. I think there are a lot of people that still hold this kind of traditionalist idea about what poetry is, about what it can and cannot be. But for the most part, I’d like to think the poetry community has opened up to accept a lot of what John Darnielle’s particular brand of writing exemplifies: that sort of raw, emotional free verse that says what it needs to say and then wraps itself up. No fuss. No mess. No unnecessary worrying about form or rhyme schemes.

The title of this piece is misleading. It’s not anything vs. anything. The fight’s been called off. It’s getting harder and harder for me to draw the line between what has the right to be considered a poem and what doesn’t; so I’m not interested in drawing lines anymore.

Here are six examples of brilliant, poetic writing by Mountain Goats founder/writer/composer/guitarist/pianist/vocalist/etc. John Darnielle:

“Fault Lines” // All Hail West Texas (2002)

down here where the watermelon grows so sweet
where I worship the ground underneath of your feet
we are experts in the art of frivolous spending
things go on like this for three years I guess
and we’re drunk all the time and our lives are a mess
and the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies
is stumbling across it’s bleak ending
but none of the rage in our eyes
seems to finish it off where it lies
I got sugar in the fuel lines
both of us do

“Woke Up New” // Get Lonely (2006)

the first time I made coffee for just myself
I made too much of it
but I drank it all
just ‘cause you hate it when I let things go to waste
and I wandered through the house
like a little boy lost at the mall
and an astronaut could’ve seen the hunger in my eyes from space

“Dance Music” // The Sunset Tree (2005)

I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
while my stepfather yells at my mother
launches a glass across the room straight at her head
and I dash upstairs to take cover
lean in close to my little record player on the floor
so this is what the volume knob’s for

“Broom People” // The Sunset Tree (2005)

I write down good reasons to freeze to death
in my spiral ring notebook
but in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook

“Going To Georgia” // Zopilote Machine (1994)

the most remarkable thing about coming home to you
is the feeling of being in motion again
it’s the most extraordinary thing in the world

“Black Pear Tree” // Black Pear Tree EP (2008)
My personal favorite.
(written by Darnielle/performed by The Mountain Goats and Kaki King)

and when its time came I could see it happen
blossoms black and sweet as Texas crude
I saw the future flowering like a ruptured vessel
somebody’s gonna get screwed
it won’t be me
someday I am going to walk out of here free

Contributing Editor

Trista Mateer is a writer and poet living outside of Baltimore, Maryland. She believes in lipstick, black tea, and owning more books than she can ever possibly read. Known for her eponymous blog, she is also the author of two collections of poetry.