Smokey Robinson and the Miracles Week No 5: I'll Try Something New
Back in the Nineties, fellow arts administrator Trevor Mbatha, the Black Arts Officer (actual job title), for Islington Council, and I were having a discussion about the origins of western literature and when I explained to him that the first poetry, that of Homer and Sappho and their contemporaries, was sung to music, he jumped up in excitement. "So all this elitist poetry that most people never read is the result of a wrong turn?" he asked. "So people like Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson who use poetry in the words of their songs are the real poets of today - the poets of pop, of popularity, the poets of the ordinary people?" While I was unwilling to dismiss the greatness of the likes of Emily Dickinson and TS Eliot so easily, I could see that, besides claiming the great tradition of poetry for African Americans, he had a good point. And with that in mind, I still always think of Smokey Robinson as the metaphysical poet of sixties Detroit.
Take the repeating hyperbole of the Miracles' "I'll Try Something New" starting with the line:
"I will build you a castle with a tower so high
it reaches the moon"
the song is a heaving, dazzling array of poetic tricks and somersaults from the series of extended metaphors to the glorious internal rhymes that populate almost every second line as in
"...I'll give you loving warm as Mama's oven and
if that don't do...."
"and every day we can play on the Milky Way and if that don't do...."
"I'll pretend I'm jealous of all the fellas and if that don't do...."
and the way he phrases the song so that the word "and" is effectively the end of each couplet, creating a repeating word rhyme that
leads us on in breathless expectation of the next "new" exaggeration he's going to try to impress her with.
So the song works on an amorous, heroic level - he's impressing her with what he says he's going to do - and also on a metaphorical level by dazzling her with his poetic eloquence,
culminating with the great, almost throwaway, line, emphasising how his love can make such huge actions effortless, even casual:
"I'll take the stars and count them and move a mountain and if that don't do
I'll try something new...."
Smokey at his poetic greatest.