All That Glitters: Florence Welch's Useless Magic Is, to the Surprise of No One, Incredibly Useful

The Florence and the Machine songwriter's book is creativity captured. Raw and personal, her poems frequently comment on the creative process itself in revealing ways.

Welcome back to All That Glitters: (Re)appraisals of musicians, actors, and other culture-makers who have written and/or published poetry. All That Glitters is a semi-regular feature of PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. Subscribe to get PopPoetry in your inbox weekly.


What’s the difference between a poem and a song lyric?

One is written and one is sung, you might say. Not so fast—poetry originally developed as a spoken or sung art form, and many poets performing today make use of their voice in all its registers. And lyrics themselves can survive on the page.

Ok: what’s the difference between a poem on the page and a song lyric on the page?

A song lyric, if it’s following even the faintest suggestion of a traditional structure, will have repetition of whole lines or phrases built in. Sure, but poetry is the queen of repetition and structure! Or, sometimes poems have no repetition and what seems like little structure at all.

Well—now I’m just confused.

As far as I can tell, the only surefire way to distinguish a poem from a song lyric on the page is to ask the artist just what it is she’s made.


Whenever a singer sets down a volume of poetry or writes even a single poem, they’re engaging the tension between the two art forms: music and poetry. And I don’t mean tension in terms of an antagonistic brawl—I mean the special relationship that the two art forms have.

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago, the nature of this relationship was thrown into question again. Cultural critic Adam Bradley believes that pop music “is a poetry whose success lies in getting you to forget that it is poetry at all.” Around this same time, however, British poet Simon Armitage was quoted as saying “songs are not poems.” He continued, “In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you're left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.”

The truth, for me, lies somewhere in between. Singer and songwriter Florence Welch has given us both song lyrics and poetry in her book, Useless Magic. With lush color photographs, including countless hand-drawn and hand-lettered pages from Welch’s journals, Useless Magic is a beautiful documentation of actual, raw creativity.

Included in this book are drawings on Chateau Marmont notepads, scrawled phrases and crossed-out first drafts. Photographs of the singer face famous paintings by Klimt and Burne-Jones on opposite pages. But there are also beautifully formatted typed pages of text to anchor the wildness: in addition to the lyrics from all four of her albums, there are also several poems included on their own in the book’s final section.

The contrast between Welch’s lyrics and her poetry is stark, but in a good way: her songs are polished and formidable as stone carvings, but her poems are more like a heap of beautiful, tangled old jewelry. They are raw and personal, and frequently comment on the creative process itself in revealing ways.


What’s a Songwriter and What’s a Poet?

Florence Welch is the big-voiced, blaze-haired lead singer of Florence and the Machine. Born in London to a British father and American mother, Welch was interested in arts, including music, literature, and more from a young age. Though she was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia—developmental coordination disorder—she has become a chart-topping songwriter and incredible performer.

After releasing four powerful albums, Welch released Useless Magic: Lyrics & Poetry, in 2018. In gorgeous full color, the book reads like a combination coffee table book, diary, and scrapbook of Welch’s slapdash, glamorous brand of creativity.

At several points during the book, Welch stops to consider the distinction between her lyrics and her poems, including in the book’s preface. The first poem included in the book is called “Song Continued,” and serves as a kind of personal meditation on the issue of the “speaker.”

When reading a poem, we are taught not to assume that the “I” on the page is the author themselves unless we know that this is their major mode of writing. Poets who first began to transgress the “I” were known as Confessional poets (think Plath, Lowell, Sexton, Snodgrass, and others) and those who continue to engage in that use of the “I” are sometimes known as Post-Confessional poets.

Welch uses the “C” word in “Song Continued,” and wonders whether it suits her:

And this new voice
This ‘me’ voice
Is it conversational

Confessional?

Welch is signaling to us that for her, the self that she portrays in her songs is different than the one in her poems. She’s deciding how much of her real self will go into these poems, and she’s also thinking about the level of intimacy she’s willing to engage here. If a poem sounds “conversational,” that means the rhetorical distance (don’t run away yet!) is much less: it’s like a friend talking to you. In other words, Florence Welch the woman is agreeing to move a bit closer to us in her poems than in her songs.

What’s a Lyric and What’s a Poem?

Later on in “Song Continued,” Welch writes more directly about her artistic philosophy in terms of content:

I’m not sure I could put these things into a song . . .
These muddy trinkets
Not beautiful enough, too bloody and ragged . . .
I always felt the song should transcend the swamp.
I needed it to dredge me out.
Drain my lungs,
Massage my heart till I’d coughed it up.

This section is my favorite passage of her poetry that I’ve read. It’s imagistic and imaginative, emotional even as it articulates a distinct aesthetic.

For Welch, the actual “stuff” of life—“getting kicked out of Topshop for drinking rosé / in the changing rooms” or “The shoe that my ex-boyfriend / tried to hit my new boyfriend with,” details that she evocatively refers to as “muddy trinkets”—are too gritty, real, messy, and unruly to fit into her songs.

She feels freer to include these rougher details in her poems. I like them: the specificity of her images gives a much sharper portrait of the artist. And as a poet myself, I would much rather hear other artists say that poetry is a place where they feel that anything is possible and everything is permissible rather than hear them say that poetry feels like a tight, limiting space in which to work.

But by far the most fascinating line that Welch offers us is “I always felt the song should transcend the swamp.” For her, songs leave behind the “bloody and ragged” specificity of life to tap into something more elevated. Then, she talks about the personal function that songs serve: “I needed it to dredge me out.” If we understand “it” here to be “the song,” we learn that, like so many other artists, Welch uses the aesthetic distance that art-making provides in order to survive the turmoil of living.

In another poem, “Monarch Butterflies,” Welch engages the tension between lyrics and poetry right out of the gate:

I am afraid of things being written down
Confined to the page so permanent
There is an impermanence to song
It is fleeting and of the moment
Words grow wings
Flying and out of the mouths of singers and crowds
But never caught fully
Never pinned down

The question of which poem is “the” poem is typically a simple matter to determine in poetry: it’s the poem as it was first published, or as it appears in a poet’s printed collection of their work. There may be a few versions of a poem that exist in the world, though not many.

But what constitutes the “definitive” version of a song? Is it the printed lyrics? Surely not: they’re divorced from the human voice and from heard music. What about the version on a studio album? Possibly. But does that mean that live versions of the song—even as they’re being created and sung nightly on a tour, for example—are all just shadows? Echoes of the already-set-in-stone studio version? What about songs that are debuted on the road and only later recorded? What about a song that’s never recorded on a studio album but becomes a fan favorite on tour?

Spoken word and slam poets are more akin to singers in this respect: the definitive version of their work might exist everywhere and nowhere, being recreated and reinvented daily. But for page poets, even though they might read their work out loud at public readings, are typically guided by some “pinned down” version of their work, as Welch terms it.

Welch is right to look to the permanence of page poetry and shudder, then. The beautiful multiplicity that singing and songwriting offers the artist is indeed like a butterfly, moving and living and alighting on artist and audience both.

What’s Useless and What’s Useful?

A poem near the end of the book, seductively titled “I Guess I Won’t Write Poetry,” is a hilarious and moving hands-thrown-up moment of creative exasperation for Welch.

I guess I won’t write poetry
I’ll just stare at my phone for fucking eternity

The blank face of god
Your demon door
Your own personal sad machine

I can’t stop laughing when I read this. Ha! Yeah—I definitely feel like this some days. I give in to the absurd time-wasting K-hole that is my phone and let it destroy my mood. I could be making art, but I don’t. Welch’s lines here are absurdist, self-destructive, and cutting. I may never stop referring to my phone as my “own personal sad machine.”

Because of the sarcastic tone and the profanity, social media and technological time wasting are subtly shaded as useless, here, while writing poetry is understood to be infinitely more useful. But Welch is aware of the limits of poetry and finds herself frustrated by its lack of utility in other ways.

Here, near the end, let’s go back to the beginning. In the book’s preface, Welch explains her book’s title:

Songs can be incredibly prophetic, like subconscious warnings or messages to myself, but I often don’t know what I’m trying to say till years later. Or a prediction comes true and I couldn’t do anything to stop it, so it seems like a kind of useless magic.

Here I gently disagree with Welch. Like magic, art is its own reward, a means to a means to a means, a way of existing in the world. Those who engage witchcraft to bring about certain outcomes (hexing a shitty ex) are just as doomed to be disappointed as writers who engage their craft in order to be rich or famous. Just because we can’t understand the messages that our creative work is trying to telegraph to us subconsciously doesn’t mean that it serves no purpose. Tying art to its use value is a dangerous game in general, and I expect that Welch knows this.

Her use of the word “useless” is soft, here. The art that Welch makes might be useless in terms of aiding her personal destiny, but it helps her with the project of living, as it does all of us. Overall, Welch’s understanding of her own magic still seems to be in flux. Hers is a delicate dance with inspiration, selfhood, and the eternal. Dwelling in this book is like entering a dreamscape, and though your tour guide will not offer you answers as you move through it, she will offer you mountains and mountains of beauty.

In the end, the distinctions between songwriter and poet, lyric and poem, and the useless and the useful are merely intellectual exercises. In Welch’s book and in life, the important thing is to make things if you feel called to and trust that they serve a purpose you might not yet be able to see.

At the end of the preface, Welch offers this final thought:

I don’t know what makes a song a song and a poem a poem: they have started to bleed into each other at this stage.

You can have everything.

She’s right: You can have everything, dear reader. You make anything and everything. Don’t worry about what you’re making or who will like it or where it will end up or how it might best be classified. Just make things. Truly: you can have everything.


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