edited by Robert Kimball. New York, The Library of America, 2006, 200 pp, $20.00.
Like most Americans, I do not read much poetry. After a long day with patients, I’m ready to relax with some football, some episodes of “24,” or maybe a good novel. I do have a tiny twinge of guilt when I skip over the New Yorker poems, but it quickly passes. Imagine my surprise when the American Poets Project published Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. I had always wanted to read the lyrics of his fabulous songs and now they were available as bona fide poetry.
Cole Porter (1891–1964) was born to a wealthy family in Peru, Indiana, and was somewhat of a musical prodigy as a child. He attended Yale University, where he sang with the new a cappella group called the “Whiffenpoofs” and composed a host of college songs, including one for the football team that concludes with the semi-immortal lines:
My immediate association is the chorus of frogs in the play by Aristophanes, which probably means that I am either hopelessly overeducated or mind-addled.
After a series of Broadway flops, Porter proceeded to settle in Paris, marry a rich American divorcée, avoid the military draft, falsely claim enlistment in the French Foreign Legion, and spend most of the next 20 years traveling lavishly in Europe and around the world. In 1928 he burst back onto the Broadway scene with the musical Paris and his first major hit song, the witty “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).” In the song, among those who “do it” are “little cuckoos in their clocks,” “courageous kangaroos,” and even Boston beans.
In the 1930s Porter produced an incredible number of hits that earned him a place in the pantheon of American songwriters. Unlike his contemporaries George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Porter wrote both the lyrics and the music for all his songs. In the sad song from the Great Depression, “Love For Sale,” a streetwalker offers only “slightly soiled” love and invites the buyer of her wares to follow her upstairs. Porter wrote very passionate songs about taunting and teasing, deceiving and deserting, but in his lyrics love always lasted until death, because “so in love with you am I.” He wrote often about the uncertainty of love. Is it a “dream come true”? Or will it, like the moon, grow dim and fade away in “the chill, still of the night”? Porter wrote about love affairs that were “too hot, not to cool down” in “Just One of Those Things”; about languorous, tropical love in the cynical “Begin the Beguine,” where women are all the same in the dark; about desperate love in “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)”; about sugar-daddies; and about existential love, wondering if love is a kiss on the lips or just a kick in the pants. His greatest score was the show Anything Goes, with such songs as “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “All Through The Night,” “Anything Goes,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and everybody’s favorite, “You’re The Top,” in which two lovers compare each other to the “tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,” as well as an “O’Neill drama,” “Whistler’s mama,” and “Camembert.”
In 1937, a tragic horseback riding accident left Porter crippled. He endured 33 orthopedic surgeries and suffered from severe depression. He was one of the earliest patients to receive electroconvulsive therapy. The depression lifted but the chronic pain remained. Critics feel that the quality of his songs declined during this time, yet he wrote his most financially successful show, Kiss Me Kate, in 1948 and other major Broadway hits such as Can-Can in 1952, Silk Stockings in 1955, and High Society in 1956, which featured his last hit song, “True Love.” Although he had several long-term homosexual relationships over the years and had separated from his wife in the early 1930s, they reunited after his accident. His leg was amputated in 1958 and he never wrote another song.
If you are a Cole Porter fan, you must get this book. If you do not know about him, you are missing a glorious piece of Americana. Many artists have recorded his songs but I strongly recommend the 1990 release “Red Hot + Blue.” It contains modern versions of his songs by such artists as U2 and Deborah Harry. The compilation was produced as part of an AIDS benefit series, and in that context, the song “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” takes on a whole new meaning. I absolutely guarantee that when you hear the drums go wild in the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” you will crank up the stereo and, at least for a few minutes, feel overcome by youthful exhilaration.
In truth, Porter was a good but not great poet. There’s no mistaking him for Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot (thank God!). But when he set his words to music, the results really were “delightful...delicious...de limit...deluxe,” and “de-lovely.”
Book review accepted for publication September 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07091487).