My thesis is just another break-up album

Hey, timeless chick, looks like we got a lot in common

If you’ve turned on a radio recently you’ve undoubtedly heard Gotye’s song “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The damn song will not stop playing. It’s the kind of song you hear the first time and think “yeah man, been there. I like these relatable lyrics & simplistic xylophone accents.” Then, after the millionth listen, you find yourself shouting “you’re just the watered down, pulp-free version of Sting & I hate you!”  Even the Australian singer admitted to feeling sick of his own song.

But the immediate rise of this song’s popularity got me thinking about break-up songs/albums. To quote Rob Gordon “What came first, the music or the misery? . . . Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

In a few days I will be sitting across from three grown men defending my thesis. I will answer questions about my very personal, very break-upy, and very-sexual-at-times, collection of poetry. The only thing I feel confident and certain about my thesis is this: I’ve done nothing new. Loss, longing, heartbreak . . . I am walking on a well-worn, stupidly tear-soaked path. My thesis is, for lack of a better phrase, a break-up album. Plain and simple.

But part of me wonders how much I used these men for my own art. At some point did I cross a line from genuinely missing them, to simply using them for material?
The more I write about these men the less I feel I knew them. The more I try to capture moments, the hazier the memories become. And the more I try to save their touch, the farther they feel from me. Two of my poems are even called “The Moment She Realized She Didn’t Know Him At All” and “The Moment She Realized He Wasn’t Hers.”  Ew. Cue the xylophone refrain. I’m gross.

One of the books I read in collaboration with my thesis was Adrienne Rich’s book, The Dream of a Common Language. In it I came across this quote, from her poem “Twenty- One Love Poems”:

or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?

I reminds me that, when it really comes down to it, I’ve done nothing new with my thesis.

Anyone who was awake for 5 mins of the ‘90s is all too familiar with the popularity of the break-through break-up song. We all know Jewel’s debut 1995 album, with songs like “Foolish Games” and “You Were Meant for Me.” We all sang along with Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” from Jagged Little Pill. You could tell Alanis was angry. She was sexy. And she clearly directed her song at one person (*cough*unclejoey*cough*).  I loved it. I wanted it.

More recently we’ve had Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker,  Amy Winehouse’s  Back to Black and of course Adele’s 21.  If you haven’t found yourself driving at night, blasting “Someone Like You” while trying to hold back the ugly cry, you may be a robot.
21 is now the fifth biggest-selling album ever in the UK. My favorite from the album is “Turning Tables.” But in her Feb 2012 Vogue interview Adele was quoted saying “I am never writing a breakup record again, by the way. I’m done with being a bitter witch.”
No! Say it ain’t so, Miss Laurie Blue Adkins! But, then again, I understand. There were moments while editing the final version of my thesis I felt fed up with myself. Could I really think of nothing else to write about?

I fear I’ve done nothing new.

Did these men, who (in the grand scheme of things) had very minimal influence on my life, really deserve all this attention? No. And yet I continued to write about them. Part of me wants to take a card from Adele’s book and shout something like, Fack! Someone who probably didn’t deserve me in the first place certainly doesn’t deserve to know how much I cared about him.
But, like Adele, I also have to admit  “If I hadn’t met him, I think I’d still be that little girl I was when I was eighteen. And the best thing is, I now know what I want for myself and from someone else. I didn’t know what I wanted before.”

And that, ultimately, is what a break-up album is about. Yes maybe it begins as a way of expressing confusion, anger, loss, revenge, hurt, denial, but in the end it has very little to do with the person who hurt you. It’s about figuring out your own shit . . . the shit forced to the surface when someone looks at you and says they don’t want their future to include you. When something officially ends you scramble to figure out a new beginning. In the words of The Beatles, “I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello.”




  • Melissa says:

    I think you’re right– the breakup album is about dealing with your own shit. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable as work. There are shitty albums and good albums, and the most important difference between them isn’t subject matter. I don’t think you should think any less of your work simply because you’re walking on a well-worn, tear-soaked path, as you put it. Adele has an insanely amazing voice, and that’s what drives that album. Do we love the “eff you” tone of the breakup songs? Heck yes. But that’s not the driving force of the album. Her voice is.
    That all being said,I understand the fear/frustration that your work isn’t doing anything “new.” I don’t know how to combat that other than to try to get better, which feels impossible most of the time. And I think you have to write about what you’re compelled to write about, and fuck what anyone else thinks. Maybe your next project won’t be a breakup album. Or, maybe it’ll be an even better one. But don’t think any less of the work that you’re doing just because there’s a lot of art about relationships and breakups. There’s a reason there’s so much, right? We clearly haven’t figured what the hell we’re doing.

    • Leyna Krow says:

      I agree with all of this.
      Everything that happens from us in life, we learn something from. Break-ups are one of those things we learn a lot from. So they’re good starting places for reflection & introspection & all the good stuff of poetry. Makes sense. And then they are good break-up poems (which yours, the ones I’ve read at least, are), there’s something totally universal there.

      • Melissa says:

        Also I hate that damn Gotye song because that line is 100% associated with Elliott Smith for me.

        • Cathie Smathie says:

          Thanks for the thoughts, girls. For some reason it really started to stick out to me music-wise. I’d read a break-up’ish collection of poetry and feel inspired. But I’d hear songs/albums that were break-upy and I’d feel crippled with inferiority. Maybe because music feels so much more immediate? Who knows.

          And Melissa I swear to God I had a reference to XO at one point, but took it out cuz it made me feel sad. Elliott’s version is 1,000,000X better. No question.

  • Fitz says:

    Dude, I hear ya. I’m still writing break-up poems to a boy I was never dating in the first place, if that makes you feel any better. But I second Melissa & Leyna’s points – if that’s where your drive to write comes from for now, then just go with it. Eventually there will be another subject to write about, and you’ll write that one to death, and then you’ll find another one and the process repeats. That’s been my experience, at least. And it’s ok because writers are supposed to be these obsessive crazy people, so you’re doing just fine.

    And at least there’s this: (the first 40 seconds are kind of gross, but just keep watching – it’s worth it)

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      “to a boy I was never dating in the first place” hahaha I have a pile of poems in this exact genre…keep on keepin’ on, girl!

      And I love me some Jenny Lewis. That video is hilarious (00:45 – 1:20 made me laugh soo hard) I don’t know how that boy hasn’t become the next Tom Hanks. We should start a petition.

  • Shira Richman says:

    My favorite sentence: “If you haven’t found yourself driving at night, blasting ‘Someone Like You’ while trying to hold back the ugly cry, you may be a robot.”

    I don’t know if you’re gross, but I know you’re funny.

    I hope you enjoy your defense. I almost started crying in mine (when Jonathan asked about how I used autobiography in my poetry) and this tearing up occurred minutes after Nance told a horror story about a girl who started crying during her defense.

    I hope your defense is fun, funny, and full of profundity, but crying is always fine by me.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      I love this comment so much…I didn’t even mention my serious, genuine, fear of crying during my defense (it must be pretty obvious though)
      Jonathan knows me well enough to not be surprised if/when it happens.

      Thanks for the well wishes :)

      • Melissa says:

        That’s so funny about Nance telling that horror story, because I’ve attended something like six poetry defenses and at 4 out of 6 the person cried. (Also, it’s always Jonathan who asks the question that prompts tears. In my limited observation, at least.)So Smath, you wouldn’t be in odd territory ;) But you’re a pretty cool customer. I think you’ll handle yourself well no matter what.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *