‘When you hear the music ringing in your soul
And you feel it in your heart and it grows and grows
And it came from the backstreet rock n’roll
Where the healing has begun’
Published in 2014 by Faber & Faber, Lit Up Inside contains about one-third of the lyrics that Van Morrison has written over his fifty-year career. Expertly edited by academic Eamonn Hughes and selected by Morrison himself, this collection shows the importance of words, worlds and poetry in the work of this most unique of artists.
The links between poetry and song writing are legion and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan certainly elevated the art form and the discussion around it. Faber are now publishing the lyrics from an array of artists – Kate Bush, Neil Tennnant, Billy Bragg and Shaun Ryder to name but a few.
Artists like Leonard Cohen have written both songs and poetry and artists like Kate Tempest are blurring the lines between poetry, performance and song, but there is no mistaking this collection for poetry as it is subtitled ‘Selected Lyrics’.
Van Morrison has chosen to express himself within the medium of music and for all the depth and detail in his lyrics; these words remain part of the songs they helped create.
Reading lyrics in print is a strange phenomenon, particularly if you are a fan of the music. Some of the lyrics here – Gloria and Moondance for example – are so inextricably tied to those wonderful melodies, that is hard to read them without hearing the songs in your head. This is particularly true of the bigger hits, which are so embedded in my consciousness, that I find it hard to separate them into their constitute parts.
Where it succeeds is in the wonderful imagery Morrison conjures up and in the creation of a very specific world – a world of mystic avenues, dew-laden gardens and journeys of the heart and soul. In his Introduction, Eamonn Hughes notes
Any significant writer creates their own world. Van Morrison has…created a world of back streets and mystic avenues; memories of childhood wonder and of adult work to suffuse it; it is a place where the chime of church bells and the playing of the radio break a silence that can be sometimes stifling, at other times spiritual.
This sense of the spiritual shines through the work. The imagery of journeys, trips of the soul and of the mind feature heavily, in an attempt to recapture a mythical past.
In the beautiful Into the Mystic, the foghorn of a ship signals a return home,
Hark now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic
Prayer, meditation and dance feature heavily too, reinforced by the freewheeling repetition that suggests a sense of freedom and improvisation when heard, but turns into a kind of an incantation when read on the page.
Take You Know What They’re Writing About, where the lyrics are loose and open on record but when read take on an imploring sense of wishful need.
Are you there, I want you to meet me
Are you there, are you there?
And you’re there, and you’re there
I want you to meet me
And no, no. no, no, no
And no, no, no.
I want you to meet
Are you, are you there?
I want you to be.
On the page, these words become part prayer, part inner dialogue and indeed, there is a strong sense of ‘spokenness’ and conversation throughout this collection – the idea that we are listening to someone’s inner thoughts and personal expressions. Van Morrison has always incorporated this into his music, in songs such as Coney Island or On Hyndford Street but on the page, it reads incredibly well.
There is also a particular sense of place in these works specifically the city of Belfast. Van Morrison is inextricably linked to East Belfast and here his home becomes mythologized as part of some wider, broader eternal world, a place where we can all find succour and peace.
Like Seamus Heaney’s imagery of the ripple, Van Morrison uses Belfast as a starting point from which to move outwards and then eventually return. In On Hyndford Street Morrison becomes the reader’s guide through these East Belfast streets, leading us on a journey, which ends
On Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside, with a sense of everlasting life.
Van Morrison has always worn his influences on his sleeve, from John Donne to Rimbaud and Paul Durcan. This love of literature allows an understanding of what is possible, poetically, through the lyric.
Lit Up Inside is the perfect title for this collection – because that is what Morrison’s words do to the reader – fill us up with trance-like rhymes and revelatory imagery to create a world of love and of possibility.
What are your thoughts on lyrics as poetry? Were you outraged by Dylan’s Nobel Prize? I’d love to hear what you think!
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