Joni Mitchell

Gathered Light: The poetry of Joni Mitchell's songs. (Image courtesy of the artist / August 21, 2013)

It's not as if Joni Mitchell really needs anyone to sing her praises. She has rarely come off as humble, exactly.

Mitchell has been known to speak up pretty effectively about the merits of her work as a singer and songwriter. She's compared herself to Mozart, to Picasso, to Miles Davis. In notably unfiltered interviews she's belittled the talents of Bob Dylan. Mitchell, who is a visual artist as well as a musician, has painted herself in the manner of Van Gogh. You get the idea; she's got a healthy self-regard. (The fixed gaze on her many self-portraits could even suggest a self-obsession to some.)

And so one might greet the arrival of essays about Mitchell's songs and lyrics as possibly unnecessary. But the new book Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs, assembled and edited by Connecticut's Lisa and John Sornberger, reminds a reader of Mitchell's unique talent, and how her lyrics do things that few other songwriters can achieve, telling deeply personal stories that somehow seem to allow listeners to see themselves in her work, with surprising natural details and emotional honesty, while bending the conventional song form into unusual shapes, with lines that often don't rhyme (at least not where you expect them to), and phrases that bulk up or unspool in patterns that confound easy metric breakdowns. When Mitchell insists that nobody writes like her, she's kind of right.

Gathered Light drives this fact home because it is also a collection of Mitchell's lyrics, printed with the songwriter's blessing, and, in some cases, corrected and amended to her specifications, so that these reflect Mitchell's stipulations for line-breaks, italics, and so on. Mitchell is perhaps best known for songs like "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game," "River" and "Help Me," to pick a handful that get the most attention. But she's written hundreds of songs.

Lisa Sornberger, a poet who grew up in Vernon and lives in Columbia, says she got the idea for the book in January of 2011. In an interview with the Advocate Sornberger says she knew the goal was "to honor Joni as a poet." (Most of the writers -- poets, musicians, artists, a few subjects of Mitchell's songs -- refer to the singer as "Joni." As with Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, a first name alone is enough for most anyone to know who you're talking about.) But before proceeding too far with the project, Sornberger says she wanted to make sure they had Mitchell's approval. And so Sornberger set about trying to get in touch with the somewhat reclusive songwriter.

"Trying to reach Joni is like trying to contact the Pope," says Sornberger. But they did connect. And Mitchell gave the project her blessing, because, as Sornberger sees it, the book is about her art. It's not about her life, her relationships, or any behind-the-music fodder. Sornberger is reluctant to share much about her communications with Mitchell, because she feels that would take the focus away from the lyrics, songs and poetry and turn it onto the person. Perhaps as surprising as being able to connect with Mitchell is the fact that Sornberger spoke with the powerful record mogul billionaire David Geffen, the subject of one of Mitchell's well-known songs, "Free Man in Paris," off of 1974's Court and Spark, her best-selling record.

Geffen worked with Warren Zevon, the Eagles, John Lennon, Neil Young, Dylan, Nirvana and dozens of other musical giants. He told Sornberger that Mitchell was his favorite artist from his whole career and that he thought she was the greatest "songwriter/poet" of the second half of the twentieth century. The short story writer Alice Munro, a fellow Canadian, and a literary legend, provides a blurb for the back of the book, saying she's thought of Mitchell as a "magical companion" throughout her life. The words of high praise from the heavy-hitters are certainly impressive, but one of Gathered Light's other coups of detective work is that it includes short pieces by two women who happen to have been the subjects of two different songs by Mitchell ("Song For Sharon" and "Ladies of the Canyon.")

If our brushes with national tragedies etch themselves on our lives, artistic brilliance seems to have a similar, but welcome, effect. And with Mitchell, many listeners recall the first time they heard her music, like an epiphany, a revelation, or a flash of recognition. Several of the essays in this book are accounts of adults remembering when they were young — teenagers, searching 20-somethings — hearing the insights and beauty of Mitchell's songs and connecting them to their own lives. Decades later those ties still resonate. Sornberger, 54, reflects upon, among other things, writing a school paper on Mitchell's music as a 15-year-old. They may seem like nostalgic self-centered details to dwell on, but it's always been the way that listeners hear themselves in Mitchell's music that's made her different from some other songwriters. And, what's more, the nostalgic power of music to pull us back through the past, or to jolt us out of our present, is something Mitchell refers to in her own songs. (Think of the clarinet player in "For Free," or the jukebox hits in "Chinese Cafe," or the way that the bubble-gum rock 'n' roll on the headphones in "This Flight Tonight" almost serves to wash away the anxiety and regret.)

The whole business of taking song lyrics and holding them up as poetry is one that will make many poets wrinkle their noses. Song lyrics are song lyrics; poems are poems. The one sinks into our minds with the aid of the melody, repetitions and harmonic accompaniment that the other doesn't generally deploy. Some song lyrics look naked on the page, stripped of their musical clothes. But then some poems seem to exist in a hazy, tuneless and inscrutable murk. For those who prize clarity and simplicity, a song is a perfect vessel. And any good song or poem aims for coiled compression. They share that.

For Sornberger and many of the contributors to her book, Mitchell's lyrics definitely are poetry. (An event celebrating the publication of the book is scheduled for Sept. 26 at the UConn Co-op at 6 p.m.)

"I want something I can sink my teeth into, that makes me say 'Yes, that's how it is,'" says Sornberger. "I say, if you're too obscure, 'What are you hiding?' Things shouldn't be deliberately obscure."

Sornberger says Mitchell's eye as an artist comes through in the words.

"Joni seems to have a very broad sensory experience. She seems to experience a kind of creative synesthesia, or sensory overlap," says Sornberger. "She is astute. We are fortunate that when she takes in things deeply, she is able to translate that experience into gorgeous, painterly images and language and music. And she can be very funny, warm, and spontaneous."

Among the more than 50 original essays (with many contributors with CT ties) in the book, some celebrate Mitchell as an environmentalist, as a feminist, as a mystic, as a fiercely independent artist, and as a poet. Edmond Chibeau praises her "piercing intimacy." Kathleen McElroy zeroes in on Mitchell's celebration of "abundant enthusiasm." Some tell personal stories. Some analyze the unusual internal rhymes, the surprise tensions, the rich similes, the biblical allusions, the details from the natural world, the bold candor, the emotional insights, the understanding of how love and happiness seem bound up with sadness and loss.

Much of Gathered Light is made up of writers and artists and musicians sharing their love for another artist, musician and writer. But it keeps pointing back to Mitchell's craft as a lyricist (a whole other book could be written about her phrasing, her strange tunings, her jazz collaborations, the shiver-inducing quality of her voice and her skill at vocal phrasing), and it's a book that will make you return to Mitchell's songs, if you're already a fan, with a new appreciation for her wide-ranging talents. Those who've never heard Mitchell — except maybe in a sample used by Q-Tip or Janet Jackson, or a cover by Counting Crows — will have more reason to listen close, to hear what's happening beyond the music.

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