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Music

Joni Mitchell's problem with poetry

Joni Mitchell is one of the most revered artists of all time. Always true to her own artistic convictions, Mitchell has enjoyed significant commercial success – along with artistic enlightenment – she forewent commercial viability in order to seek completion as an artist. Not many artists can say they’ve truly experienced both sides of the coin, and I suspect that this kind of experience is dying. 

In terms of dedication to art, Mitchell ranks in the highest order, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the two other premier polymaths of the countercultural period. 

Mitchell is an iconoclast in art and in life. Everything she does, she does following her own free will, owing to the appropriation of the countercultural idea of freedom and possibly a preference for Ayn Rand. Regardless of her politics, you cannot question Mitchell’s remarkable dedication to her craft. She’s never been a sell-out, and given that the singer is such a significantly influential artist, to walk the line in such a balanced manner can’t have been easy.  

Considering that Mitchell is such a free spirit and somewhat unconventional, during a 2005 interview with New York magazine, the Canadian songstress shocked audiences with a revelation that seemed uncharacteristic for someone whose lyrics are, well, so poetic.

The interviewer asked Mitchell about where the provenance of her literacy and who influenced it. Hoping to dig a little deeper into the source of Mitchell’s artistic inspiration, they asked if it was “Great poets? Or something else?”.

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Typically Mitchell, she totally turned the question on its head. For something that could have been a fairly straightforward answer, the ‘River’ mastermind went into much detail about her thoughts on poetry and evaded the broader question about her inspirations. She said: “I didn’t like poetry. When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, ‘You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it’? (Laughs.) They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, ‘Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.’ “

Mitchell explained: “I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic. I agree with Nietzsche on the poets. He said something like: ‘The poet is the vainest of the vain, the peacock of the peacocks … he muddles his waters so that they might appear deep.’ I know I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways. I guess there are a few poets I like, though, like E. J. Pratt and Carl Sandburg.”

It’s probably time we stopped labelling Joni Mitchell as a poet. As with most questions she’s faced with, she made her point for such informed zest, that we can only admire her fashion and bow to her demands. 

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