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A Poet on Taylor Swift’s Complicated Embrace of Tortured Poets

6 minute read
Burt is Donald and Katherine Loker Professor of English at Harvard. Her most recent book of poems is WE ARE MERMAIDS (2022). Her next collection of lit-crit, SUPER GAY POEMS, will appear in 2025, with a book all about Taylor Swift to follow soon

Who was the first tortured poet? Maybe the ancient Egyptian who wrote, sometime in the 15th century BCE, "My beloved stirs my heart with his voice. He causes illness to seize me.... My heart is smitten." Maybe the poet Catullus, whose heartbreaks lit up ancient Rome: "I hate and love," he explained in Latin, "and it's excruciating," or (depending on the translator) "it crucifies me." Petrarch's sonnets, in 14th century Italy, complained that love both scorched and chilled. Mary Wroth, a contemporary of Shakespeare, agreed: love made her "burn and yet freeze: better in hell to be."

All those poets felt tortured by erotic love—and their strife sometimes hurt other people, too, if they came too close. The trope of the tortured poet whose gifts would destroy him (or, less often, her) came about later, when European writers began to see poets as especially sensitive, anguished, or fragile. "We poets in our youth begin in gladness," William Wordsworth mused in 1802, "But thereof in the end come despondency and madness." That second line lengthens as if unfolding hard truth. A genuine poet in France might be a "poète maudit" ("cursed poet"), like Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud, marked by fate, mental illness, or alcohol addiction. By the 20th century the type (or stereotype, really) could fit all manner of wild and self-destructive creators, especially men, from Dylan Thomas to the Doors' Jim Morrison.

By calling her new album The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift points back to this tradition. She also makes fun of it, comments on it, and rejects it, as the prose that accompanied the album implies. "There is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed," Swift wrote in an Instagram post. "Our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page. Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it."

Seeing her work as ink on a page, not only as song in the air, Swift claims herself as a literary writer—the modern age’s most notorious poet. Fans first speculated that she appropriated the "tortured" mantle from the group chat co-run by her ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn, which Alwyn called "The Tortured Man Club.” Could be—but it’s so much more than that, and it might also point to other recent relationships. Taylor creates some distance between herself and the stereotype she invokes. "You're not Dylan Thomas, I'm not Patti Smith," Swift's title track declares. "This ain't the Chelsea Hotel. We're modern idiots." He's not that gifted, and she's not that dramatic. Or rather she's dramatic in a different, far more deliberate way: one that fits her own, always thoughtful, but rarely raw, art.

Read More: All the References in Taylor Swift’s Title Track ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Swift also takes back for herself—and for other women artists—the power that supposedly comes from chronic distress, from feeling like a tortured mess. "You wouldn't last an hour in the asylum where they raised me," Swift warns on "Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?" If she feels tortured and reacts with poetry, that's not endemic to poets; it's the logical consequence of a romance gone wrong and a live lived in public. "I was tame, I was gentle till the circus life made me mean,” she sings. “You caged me and then you called me crazy/ I am what I am 'cause you trained me.”

But if Swift has become the chair of the Tortured Poets Department, she didn't get there by being born this way: the rest of the department did it to her. Her barbed words, sharp hooks, and sarcastic replies are more like Wroth's burning and freezing than they are like Baudelaire's doom. They share, and make fun, of her own emotional extremes. "Whether I'm gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your bike I don't know yet," she explains on “imgunnagetyouback,” punningly. "But I'm gonna get you back”—either get you to come back to me, or get back at you. Her phrases present a feminist revenge, turning her pain into (what else?) song. "I cry a lot but I am so productive it's an art," she croons on one of the most upbeat new tracks “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” "You know you're good when you can even do it with a broken heart."

Like all Swift's albums, The Tortured Poet Department contains multitudes and multiple takes on the same situation, just as it contain several pop styles, from the 1980s-style synths in the album’s single “Fortnight,” composed with Post Malone, to the acoustic guitar and string sweeps of "The Albatross," created with reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Wordsworth's ex-friend, a self-sabotaging poet for the ages). In "But Daddy I Love Him" Swift strikes back, with extra reverb, at fans who insist on telling her who to date and how. In "Down Bad" she encapsulates her toughest, most immature moments in elegant half-rhyme: "everything comes out teenage petulance. I might just die, it would make no difference." But Swift for most of the album, for all her passion and all her pain, knows better than to blow up her life for love. Like her character in "The Bolter," she knows how to save herself, even when love feels like drowning.

The tortured modern poet—the poète maudit—the trope that Swift's new album takes up and plays with and against, remains a powerful metaphor (she is no authority on literal torture, and never pretends to be one). Listeners who have been sorting through The Tortured Poets Department since both halves of it dropped, two hours apart, have already found our own favorites, mirrors for our own falls through thin ice.

Read More: Taylor Swift Is Embracing the 5 Stages of Grief. Should You?

It's surprising, even staggering, to see the range of her responses to love, to poetry, and to "torture." Sometimes she magnifies, even celebrates, her own and her characters' emotional turmoil. Other times (as in the title track) she makes fun of the way they, as would-be "tortured poets," cannot get out of their own heads. And sometimes—to quote another poet, William Butler Yeats—she mocks mockers after that, telling us to stop telling her what to do.

Always, though, she shows us the craft she shares with the great poets, and songwriters, of times past: the ability, as Yeats also put it, "to articulate sweet sounds together," and to "work harder than all these"—harder than anybody—at turning all those feelings into art.

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