Monday, July 15, 2013

What I Learned About Writing from Cole Porter

Having been brought up on a heavy diet of Verdi and Puccini and the music of the great American songbook, I hadn't a chance.  It was a foregone conclusion that the romantic and rhythm centers of my brain would be highly developed (in the case of the romantic part, undoubtedly overdeveloped!)  These things certainly affect the kinds of stories I write and how I strive (but with only intermittent success) to write them really well.

While listening to a Cole Porter song recently, I realized that Cole has set a high standard of how to tell a story.  We can learn a lot from him.  The song that brought this to mind is “Down in the Depths.”   Read the lyrics first; then we’ll talk:

“Down In The Depths" by Cole Porter

With a million neon rainbows burning below me,
And a million blazing taxis raising a roar,
Here I sit, above the town,
In my pet-paillated gown,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor.
While the crowds in all the nightclubs punish the parquet,
And the bars are packed with couples calling for more,
I'm deserted and depressed
In my regal-eagle nest,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor.
When the only one you wanted wants another,
What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?
Why, even the janitor's wife
Has a perfectly good love life,
And here I am, facing tomorrow,
Alone in my sorrow,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor

Without the repeats of the refrain, there are just 102 words.  Yet look how much Cole tells us about his character.  And he does it without every describing her from the outside.  Every piece of information comes from her thoughts, her hurt.  The vivid pictures we see are in her imagination, born of her grief.  The words are gorgeous, and though they evoke the era when Cole wrote them, they still communicate today.  In fact, they come to us twenty-first-century listeners with a sheen of elegance gone by, and for me anyway, that intensifies the woman’s plight.

Notice the verbs.  They marvel.  Neon rainbows  “burning.”  He could have said “glowing.”  But that would not have spoken of pain.  Likewise, the crowds in the nightspots are not merely “dancing,” a word that would have lightened the tone.   These denizens of the dance club “punish the parquet.

Even Cole’s nouns work wonders.  His character may own a Matisse or a Picasso, but her once-prized possessions are nothing but “swank” to this millionairess who envies, not just other women, but “the janitor’s wife.  

All this within the constraints of a killer rhyme scheme.

Listen to rhythm of the words.  You don’t need to hear the melody to feel it, to have it enhance your emotional response.

Speaking of melody, that too came out of Cole’s heart and mind.   Here it is:
[A note about this music video: It is the best rendition on YouTube.  There are many, but the others play games with the original lyrics as the performers try to put their own stamp on the song.  Stamps that I think should be cancelled!  The version I am posting sounds good and true, but its director betrayed the singer by having her make silly faces when she sang.  So close your eyes as you listen and conjure your own visuals of neon rainbows and elegantly shod feet dancing a bit too frantically on the floor at El Morocco.]

I have no delusions that I could ever follow Cole’s example.  But he sure demonstrates how it is done in the hands of a master and gives us a pinnacle to shoot for.

Annamaria Alfieri - Monday


  1. I think some of the best writers in the world are lyricists, for they're forced to tell an entire tale in a few lines. In my mind, Cole Porter is at the top of that list.

    Funny, when I read the lyrics I didn't think of them as the words of a woman, but rather an autobiographical lament by Porter up in his apartment on the 19th (?) floor of the Waldorf Astoria Towers, staring out across NYC, reflecting on his life at the time.

    1. Jeff, I am with you 100% on that (big surprise that we agree:). I have the lyrics of many of them in my head--Ira, Yip, Oscar, Irving--but Cole is my favorite, too. I never actively memorized the songs. I have just listened to them over and over, sung by everyone from Ethel Merman to Aaron Neville. I like to hope that those great phrases in my head will inspire my choice of words and make them better.
      I, too, also thought of Cole in his place in the Waldorf, and how heartbreaking it must have been for him to live in a time when love for him was against the law. At least it isn't anymore.

  2. I also thought it was a man talking...obviously illustrates how personally affecting the words are!

    1. Michael, the feelings seem universal to me too. I always wondered why, most of the time, when sung by men these are in changed into the third person--"there she sits above the town in her..."etc. Human hearts are human hearts. I cannot imagine a writer of fiction who hasn't had his or hears broken at some point.

  3. Great lyric, great writer, wonderful piece, Annamaria. Hard to believe that 20-30 years from now people will react that way to "Woolly Bully."

  4. I thought it was a man as well. It 'felt" autobiographical. I date myself by saying that I, too, love the old songs. Thank you.

  5. When a writer can convince us that the emotions in the story are absolutely real and so deeply felt, that's genius. Nothing about the song is dated, lil--not you, not the thoughts, and not Cole. Cole is forever.

  6. Thank you, Annmaria, a delightful essay.

    But a dismaying video. The arranger did mess with Porter's lyric.

    The chanteuse is singing: "All alone... Down in the depths ON the ninetieth floor."

    What Porter wrote was: "Down in the depths OF the ninetieth floor."

    They killed Porter's joke. (Murder is everywhere.)

  7. Yes, Len. The other YouTubes were worse. "when the only one you want now loves another". "and the people in the bars all clamor for more..". And they all as I recall say "on" not "of". Except for Ethel Merman. She sang "of," but when she performed it on Broadway, Cole himself was watching. I think the joke is a heart wrenching bitter one. Adds to the pathos. Try as they may to kill his jokes, as I said above, Cole is immortal

  8. Red Hot and Blue..always Cole.