Lana Del Rey's poetry debut review – sometimes cliche, always solipsistic

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, released as an audiobook this week and in print in September, is a reminder of the singer’s strengths and shortcomings

Lana Del Rey has a decided aesthetic: a kitsch, drag queen femininity, always heartbroken, always nostalgic for 1950s California. From early albums such as Born to Die and Ultraviolence, to her latest Norman Fucking Rockwell!, all her music sounds kind of the same. I’m OK with that; it’s camp, it’s silly, it’s a mood.

When her debut poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, was announced, I wasn’t surprised that Del Rey had poetic aspirations. In her 2019 song, hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it, Del Rey refers to herself “tearing around in my fucking nightgown / a 24-7 Sylvia Plath”. This is the fun of her work, combining high Americana (in Young and Beautiful) with a lackadaisical, millennial nihilism (see Fucked My Way Up to the Top).

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is being published by Simon & Schuster, first as an audiobook this week, then as a hardback and ebook in September. I listened to the 39-minute audiobook version, in which Del Rey reads 13 poems set to soft piano chords, occasional saxophone riffs and a staticky sound that could be the sea.

True to form, Del Rey opens with the lines, “I left my city for San Francisco / took a free ride off a billionaire’s jet / LA, I’m from nowhere who am I to love you.” She addresses the city, repeating in a childlike voice: “LA, can I come home now?” The city lies in her bed, “vaping lightly next to me”. This first poem, LA Who Am I to Love You, is the best of the collection. Del Rey deftly captures the alienation that comes from desiring a big city that has no desire and no space for you. I thought of where I grew up in south London, which, like many North American cities, has been made inhospitable to many by gentrification.

The other 33-and-a-half minutes are not as strong. The writing is sometimes cliched, often rambling and consistently solipsistic. In Salamander, she writes: “I love you / but you don’t understand me / I’m a real poet / my life is my poetry.” Fatally, she ruins the camp, ironic fun of Lana Del Rey. In Happy, she tells us, “people think that I’m rich and I am but not how they think”, referring to being loved and loving freely. Loved as she may be, Del Rey is rich in the way that we think; according to Google, she’s worth $30m. And being told by a multimillionaire poet that love is more important than money feels jarring.

In her penultimate poem, Paradise is very fragile, Del Rey gets political. She calls Donald Trump a “megalomaniac”, addresses the rising sea levels and the recent California wildfires. As the poem continues, she conflates her personal distress with the wider harms of climate catastrophe: “I always had something gentle to give / all of me in fact / it’s one of the beautiful things about me / it’s one of the beautiful things about nature.”

This is not only exasperating, it’s boring. There’s nothing wrong with artists drawing on their own experiences. Del Rey’s mistake is forgetting that part of being a poet is to tell us about the world, not just focus on herself.

In May, Del Rey posted a statement on Instagram asking why she was being “crucified” by critics for apparently glamourising abuse, in which she named several black female singers with “No 1s with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc” for comparison. Caught in her feelings, Del Rey imagined a double standard that didn’t exist: she doesn’t have it harder than Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj, and she didn’t have to throw them under the bus to make her point. Likewise in her poetry, her analysis is embarrassingly short-sighted. Taken together, these shortcomings make it harder to enjoy her work as a satire of the American mythos.

As a poet, Del Rey is at her best when she is her most surreal, least earnest self. In Salamander, she plaintively addresses the yuppie exercise franchise SoulCycle – “I can’t seem to blow off enough steam to get you out of my head / SoulCycle you to death” - which, as a line, is pure gold. Who else would use a poem about fame and unrequited love to anthropomorphise a brand known for providing group spinning sessions? And the poetry-as-audiobook format is also sublime. But it’s not enough to save this collection. Particularly now, when so many US poets, such as Claudia Rankine and Natalie Diaz, are writing with such clarity and political incision. Give me Lana bangers over Lana poetry every time.

• Yara Rodrigues Fowler is the author of Stubborn Archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler

The GuardianTramp

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