You’ve probably heard by now that last night, during the Grammys ceremony, as she was accepting an award, Taylor Swift announced that she has a new album coming out. Many thought that if she were revealing anything, it would be the release date of her re-recording of her Reputation album. Instead, she announced an album of totally new music.
Regardless of the dubious etiquette of promoting your own brand-new product during a thank-you speech at a massive awards show (while also mentioning how many of those awards you already have), the announcement was still exciting to many, for many reasons.
Here’s what we know. It’s called The Tortured Poets Department. It contains a bonus track called “The Manuscript.” The cover is an image of her laying down on big pillows, hugging herself, wearing a sheer black top from Yves Saint-Laurent and a pair of high-waisted black briefs from The Row, which is, I assume, what tortured poets do. They are in mental agony, so they wilt sexily on fluffy mattresses. Checks out. Byron would do this. So far, so good.
The title, The Tortured Poets Department, seems to be a nod to her former relationship with the British actor Joe Alwyn, with whom she had apparently shared many poetic moments. Besides that Joe had seemed very drawn to English Major-y film projects, Taylor also seemed to grow her love of literature during that relationship. “Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed,” she sings in “Paper Rings.” Her song “The Lakes” is about the time she and Joe went to the Lake District and she thought a lot about Wordsworth and how in the 19th century you couldn’t tweet. Her song “Sweet Nothing,” offers an anecdote of the time she wrote a poem and her lover (Joe) said “what a mind” in response, an event which apparently “happen[ed] all the time.”
Plus, ahem, apparently, Joe Alwyn and actor-friend Paul Mescal were once in a group chat called “The Tortured Man Club.” So, you know.
But rampant speculation as to the Joe Alwyn-ness of this album is not what we, the literary-minded staff of Literary Hub, care about the most. We want to hear more about these Tortured Poets and what sort of Department they are in! We have questions!
First of all, all brooding boy group chats aside, is Taylor aware that her album title sounds almost exactly like the title of the film Dead Poets Society? Has she seen Dead Poets Society? Would she have called this album Dead Poets Society if it weren’t for Dead Poets Society?
Let it be said that The Tortured Poets Department does sound more formal than Dead Poets Society, which leads me to ask: is this an unofficial nickname for an official department, like at some sort of University? Or is it more like how in Disney World you can walk through a place called Muppet Labs and pass office doors labeled “Division of Fashion Technology,” and “Institute of Advanced Chronology” and such?
In her post announcing the release, she shared some handwritten lyrics:
And so I enter into evidence
My tarnished coat of arms
My muses, acquired like bruses,
My talismans and charms
The tick tick tick of love bombs
My veins of pitch-black ink
THEN, she adds,
All’s fair in love and poetry
And signs it,
of the Tortured Poets Department
There’s a lot to unpack here! A lot!
I’m not going to be close-reading these lyrics because I’m sure countless others have done that already. I’m not looking for Easter Eggs.
But, briefly, I am interested in her use of “Chairman” rather than “Chair” because it calls to mind a company more than a university department, which really shifts the flavor (and indeed might provide an accidentally accurate reading of Taylor Swift’s whole enterprise, as a business more than it is anything else; I love Taylor, but I’m not blind to the fact that ars gratia artis is not and has never been her motto.)
But more importantly, if she’s the Chairperson of a group, who are these other poets? Who makes up the faculty of this department? Which other tortured poets do we have in there? Why do I think one of them is, in Taylor’s mind, Lana Del Rey? How did she become chairman? Is it, as in many humanities departments at universities, a rotating position that unluckily befalls everyone every few years? Did she seize it without a quorum?
I do want to know what poets Taylor is reading, generally. We know her music tastes, but aside from her emphatic endorsement of All the Crawdads Sing and one giant Kennedy biography, we don’t really know as much about what she reads, compared to, say, what she listens to. I looked into this. I assume she’s read the first two Sally Rooney books, because Joe was in one adaptation and Paul Mescal was in the other. She seems to have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Apparently, she loves Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. She seems to have read the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books and a few things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I still do not think she has read The Scarlet Letter.
But poetry? We don’t know jack about what kind of poetry she’s into! What does she read? Who does she think is good? I feel like these are pretty important bonafides if you’re calling yourself the Chairperson of the Tortured Poets Department!
It’s not that I think Taylor doesn’t know things about poetry; I think she does. But there’s a whole WORLD of poetry out there, and I feel like she would enjoy herself if she steeped in it for a while. Like, her relationship to scansion and meter are odd; there’s a reason why we all thought that “Blank Space” line was “all the lonely Starbucks lovers” (and not the real line of “got a long list of ex-lovers”) and that reason is that the stresses she places on the syllables when she sings the line is opposite of the stresses you’d place on the syllables if you spoke it. The syllabic paring of “of ex-” is naturally an iamb, yet she says it like a trochee! A quick sit-down on the fundamentals of prosidy would be fun and helpful, I think. Someone should also talk to her about the conditional and subjunctive; it’s not “if I was the man,” but “if I were the man.” If you say “if,” then you need to change the form of the agreeing past-tense verb “was” to “were,” even if you are using the past-tense singular in the sentence. There’s a part in the documentary Miss Americana where she’s trying to figure out how to properly write that line! She wants to know!
I personally think Taylor Swift should go to college. I’m sure, since there are college courses taught about her, that many in her circle feel that college has nothing left to teach her. She has an honorary PhD. But she loves to learn, and there is much to learn. “Taylor Swift with a literature BA” would be, frankly, unstoppable. And she’d be so happy! She would love Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” sonnet sequence. Can you imagine how she’d react after learning about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath? I genuinely think her heart would stop if she read Borges. Somebody hand her “The Book of Sand!” I’d be shocked if Lana has never lent her some Whitman. So, yes, I want her to learn these things. Carpe Diem, Taylor!
But anyway. One thing that I think is VERY clear about The Tortured Poets Department (an album for which I personally I jumped into the pre-order queue a few minutes after the announcement and happily waited 39 minutes to check out along with the rest of the depressive literary proletariat), is that the phrase “tortured poet” is not an oxymoron. If poets are known for anything, I guess besides poetry, it’s being in anguish, probably not having a lot of money, and maybe being a little sickly. There are people out there currently trying to make careers as poets, and are probably having a hard time of it, because being a poet when you’re an obscure regular person is not easy.
Therefore, I propose that Taylor Swift should announce some poetry fellowships! Maybe she should partner with the National Endowment for the Arts or the NYPL or someplace. Or she can DIY some. But some fellowships for early- and mid-career and even late-career and women and BI-POC and LGBTQIA+ ETC. poets so that they can write and publish their work and live on it would be great. Maybe Taylor can also endow a poetry or literature or music or gender studies professorship or two, to keep the humanities strong in this time of academic crisis. I’d be much happier jumping on my desk and calling out “O Chairman, My Chairman,” if she did any of these things.
So, my point is, out of everything it could be, I hope the Tortured Poets Department (the nebulous entity, not the album title) is an advocacy group for poets and poetry, lifting up a community of writers and readers and the generally-bookish and the frequently-sad, making the art form accessible and the profession solvent and the pastime additionally worthwhile. Poets have a reputation for being tortured, but they don’t have to be!
Anyway, in the meantime, now we sit and wait for the album to come out. It will come out on April 19th, which is, incidentally, the death-day of Lord Byron in 1824. I don’t think that means anything.
But until April 19th, we will wait. To quote some Whitman (because why not), “I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”