Show Hide image

Taylor Swift’s poem for Vogue: a close-reading

This poem feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Taylor Swift doesn’t do interviews any more. But she would quite like to be in a glossy fashion magazine if it’s cool enough. This presents us with a conundrum. How do you get into a big, high-status publication without having to be questioned in any way, shape, or form? The answer – write a poem and be done with it!

Yep, Vogue have allowed Taylor Swift to grace their cover in exchange for 31 lines of what some may call poetry! Or, in Vogue’s own words, they have bagged “the world-class lyricist’s stunning words on the timely subject of reinvention and moving on”. It’s called “The Trick to Holding On”, and you can read the poem in full at Vogue, or below, as we give it a full analysis.

We have four stanzas, all of eight lines except the second, which has seven. There’s no formal rhyme scheme to speak of, but we get a few random rhyming lines here and there, which is nice. The poem opens with quite a forceful metre that quickly dissolves into totally free verse. It’s message is: to hold on to your life, your sanity, and your sense of self, you have to let go of people who upset you, that drift apart from you, and that let you down. It’s a little defensive, nostalgic, faux-wise and trite, which is to say, it’s exactly as you’d imagine it to be.

Let go of the ones who hurt you 
Let go of the ones you outgrow
Let go of the words they hurl your way 
as you’re walking out the door 

Wow. We begin with some textbook anaphora, and in the imperative mood, no less. It’s a pretty sombre tone. It might remind you of some of the great funeral poems: Christina Rossetti’s “Remember”, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye, WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (“Stop all the clocks…”) and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas – if those poems were about getting mad at a pop star for stealing dancers or Kim Kardashian leaking recordings of private phone calls.

It might also remind you of the e. e. cummings poem “let it go – the”, if it were written in full sentences, with hearts dotting the “i”s. (That poem encourages the reader to “let go” of “the truthful liars, “the false fair friends” and “the oath cracked” – so, basically the most Taylor Swift phrases you’ve ever heard.) The difference, of course, is that this poem is more of an inspirational cross-stitch bookmark than a poem.

Anyway, classic Swiftian concerns from the start: haters, betrayal, doors (Taylor Swift loves doors, man), and a mysterious, tyrannous “they”, always out to get her.

The only thing cut and dry 
In this hedge-maze life 
Is the fact that their words will cut 
but your tears will dry 

Here Swift takes the common or garden expression “cut and dry” – final, decided, settled, definite – and is like, well, you know the only thing in life that’s CUT AND DRY??? The fact that words CUT but tears DRY. THE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN IS INHERENT IN THE HUMAN CONDITION – BUT SO TOO, IS HEALING. Oh, AND ALSO: LIFE IS A MAZE (or “hedge-maze”, because I’m a classy bitch), NOT A STRAIGHTFORWARD PATH!!! Words to live by.

They don’t tell you this when you are young
You can’t hold on to everything 
Can’t show up for everyone 
You pick your poison 
Or your cure 
Phone numbers you know by heart 
And the ones you don’t answer any more

We’re back to that “they” – which has now seemingly shifted from all the bad people who are trying to ruin your life, to adults who should be giving better advice. (Either way, they suck.)

We get our first little hint of a rhyme here, in cure/more – linking not answering the phone to toxic people with healing, and reversely framing the compulsion to remember a full phone number as a kind of poison.

Any sense of regularly or metre fully collapses here – instead we get these overlong lines opening and closing the stanza, getting shorter towards the middle, isolating “Or your cure” as the big – dun dun dunnn – dramatic moment of the verse. Guys, you can CHOOSE your cure! Choose healing! Let go!

This verse is one line shorter than all the others. I tried to find a reason for this (Seven numbers in a phone number? Uh…. It’s the most powerful magical number?!) but I really don’t think there is one.

Hold on to the faint recognition in 
the eye of a stranger 
As it catches you in its lustrous net 
How quickly we become intertwined 
How wonderful it is to forget 
All the times your intuition failed you 
But it hasn’t killed you yet
Hold on to childlike whims and moonlight swims and your blazing self-respect 

Possibly the weirdest section of the whole thing. I’m not sure if this is an actual stranger, or a long lost acquaintance who’s become a stranger, or whether the recognition is real or imagined. I also don’t know what a “lustrous net” is or would look like, or how an eye can have one. I don’t know how self-respect can blaze. I’m very confused, basically. Also, Taylor Swift has read Joan Didion, and she don’t care who knows it!!!!

There are lots of words here that it feels like Swift has chosen because they are “poetic”: “lustrous”, “intertwined”, “blazing”. Images, too: “the eye of a stranger” “childlike whims”, “moonlight swims”. The result is a tangle of mixed metaphors that feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Meanwhile, we have the most rhyming of all here (net/forget/yet, whims/swims), and some of the most regular metre, as if Swift is really getting into it – or slipping back into the rhythm of song writing. The four lines that begin “How quickly…” would make sense as a little verse on their own, with a cute nursery rhyme scheme and metre (if it wasn’t for that irritating “it” in the fourth line) but then it dissolves again.

And if you drive the roads of this town
Ones you’ve gone down so many times before 
Flashback to all the times
Life nearly ran you off the road 
But tonight your hand is steady 

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Taylor Swift fucking loves a flashback. “Love Story” begins with a flashback to a “balcony in summer air”, “Forever & Always” is about the “flashback to when he said forever and always”. There are flashbacks in “If This Was a Movie”, “Red” and, most recently, “Dress”. Other shit she loves: driving metaphors (“Red”, “Treacherous”, “Style”, “Getaway Car”). This might be both meaningless and cliché-ridden – but it sure is her.

Suddenly you’ll know 
The trick to holding on
Was all that letting go 

The dénouement! Who coulda seen it coming?! Not me. Someone typewrite this onto buff paper and tastefully lie some cigarettes on top of it – stat!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: BANANA PANCAKE/ PHOTOGRAPHERS CHOICE
Show Hide image

Boundaries, in wine as in politics, are as random as the people who invent them

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots.

In gruesome times, as this little landmass drifts politically ever farther from the European coast, sparkling wine news gives drink for thought. Louis Pommery England is not actually terribly English; it’s a collaboration between Pommery Champagne and Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley, although the grapes, they hasten to assure us, are as British as Brexit.

Are they, though? I don’t wish to be difficult, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are French imports. All those sturdy Hampshire vines, bearing the plump fruit of this splendid, soon-to-be-isolated island, had to come from somewhere. How long must a vine root in English soil to be considered native?

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots. Champagne may be one of the glories of France, drunk by Napoleon, famously, in victory and in defeat, but it was also adored by the Russians, whose vast and chilly acreage helped ensure his downfall. Some 50 years after the retreat from Moscow, Roederer Champagne was selling 650,000 bottles a year to the nation that destroyed Napoleon’s dream of continental domination.

And Roederer itself presents a problem, from the patriotic perspective, when you consider that the first Roederer was not a Monsieur but a Herr. We all know how Champagne suffered during two world wars: the soil that nurtures Pinot Noir was soaked in blood. But when you live 200km from the Franco-German border, it isn’t only troops who march in: like Roederer, the houses of Krug, Bollinger, and Deutz were all founded by German immigrants. On a recent visit to Deutz, I kept mispronouncing “Dertz” as “Doytz”; I was unconsciously associating it with Deutsch, the German for German. William Deutz founded his winery in Aÿ, next door to his compatriot Bollinger’s house, in 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation. The new queen’s mother, paternal grandparents and future husband were all German; her grandfather, King George III, was the first of their house whose mother tongue was English. How long must a royal family root in English soil to be considered native?

 “Our name pushed us to find distant markets where people were less intensely anti-German,” says Jean-Marc Lallier, the sixth generation of Deutzes since William. One of those markets was not so distant. In the late 19th century, 80 per cent of Deutz exports went through its English agent, which means they were sundowners all over the empire on which the sun never set.

In Deutz’s pretty château, full of ancestors’ portraits, I taste Hommage à William Deutz 2010: 100 per cent Pinot Noir, all from two vineyards just outside the window. “My grandfather made a William Deutz that was 90 per cent Pinot Noir,” says Lallier; “he was very austere, not funny and not very sexy either, and his cuvée was a bit like him. In 1966 my father made it a Blanc de Blancs. Pure Chardonnay in Aÿ, heartland of Pinot Noir: Grandfather was furious!”

Their modern Blanc de Blancs, the gorgeous Amour de Deutz, comes from Grand Cru vineyards a few kilometres away. I gaze out at William’s Pinot, so similar to England’s and yet so different, and drink, with sadness, to the understanding that political boundaries are as arbitrary as the people who invent them, and that in the human as in the vinous sense there is, in fact, no such thing as an island. 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist