I Would Leave Me If I Could by Halsey
I've started this review a couple times and scrapped all of them. I've written hundreds of reviews before, and this is the first time I have absolutely no clue how to review a book. It's not just because it's poetry. And it's not because I don't have thoughts on every single poem. I've read the book twice and scrubbed a million notes around her words and highlighted every poem on my second read through. I have so many favorites, and my heart feels like it's going to burst after finishing each poem. Halsey exceeded every expectation I had set to the high bar of her music. I almost feel like this book is too good for my review to remotely do it justice, so I don't even know where to begin.
This book is extremely vulnerable. Halsey has never held back on telling the ugly truth in her lyrics, but the poetry takes it so much farther. She has space to tell the entire story, fewer constraints than what will fit in the melody, and the silence of words on a page to allow the listener to understand exactly what she's saying on the first read. In her music, the production can enhance her words, but they also mask them at times. There's a chance the listener walks away without understanding the true meaning of the lyrics. Here, it is bluntly on the page. Also, Halsey herself has discussed this, but poetry is written for an audience of one. While you often hear music in groups, playing for the masses, a book is read one person at a time. It practically begs you to intertwine your own experiences with hers. In the process, the reader feels a bit of the nakedness Halsey talked about feeling on the release day. Not only is she bearing her soul in the pages, she's forcing the reader to stare hard at themselves in the mirror and confront why some of her most painful words cut so close to home.
Be warned before you start reading, Halsey doesn't hold back. The poems are occasionally graphic and they discuss difficult subjects like abuse and sexual assault. There are poems about hating your body, about not trusting your own brain. It's intense and intensely honest. Even the most difficult to read, though, have an air of gentleness to the reader. Like she's waiting to give the ones who need it a hug afterwards. These darker poems never read as "look at all this shit I've been through". Instead, they seem to be there to say, "I've been there too". Beyond her already obvious mastery of language and powerful perspective, that's the strength of the book. It is especially impactful considering her fanbase of teen and young adult girls and LGBTQ people. Being vulnerable to this degree allows so many people who need it to see everything Halsey has made it through on her path to becoming one of the top figures in pop. Though her openness throughout her career and the way she interacts with her fans have always made her feel closer and more human than most successful music artists, this book is the true account that success is possible even after a million seemingly earth shattering events. Knowing your experience isn't unique is always comforting, but coming from someone as idolized as Halsey, from someone so many people aspire to be, is even more powerful. She's mentioned that she hopes the book makes everyone who's told her "I just want to be like you" realize they're already more like her than they think. She talks about everything that female pop stars are told to keep their mouths shut about, and instead of scaring people, I think it'll draw them in closer. While it's not always true, proving you're a human too has its benefits. Not every artist needs to be made of gold, and Halsey shines in her willingness to show us her metaphorical skin.
Because it's hard to talk about a collection of poetry with people who haven't read it yet, the next point I'd like to delve into is less about the poems themselves and more about another point Halsey made during her livestream for the book release. She talked about being able to say these things in poetry more than music because a book is faceless. Notably, she doesn't include an author photo, and her bio is only a single line in the standard edition. She talks about the freedom of having these poems span from weeks ago all the way back to when she was 18. There's no album cycle or era around it, gossip magazines to contextualize, or a specific look to match the album. It's just words and feelings and emotions. Music is so dependent on the look, the visuals, and everything else happening in an artist's life besides the music, it's interesting to think about how freeing it is to release a collection of work that is literally just the work. We all have the context of her life. We can make theories all day long. But, at the end of the day, it's her words before anything else. For once, everyone has to shut up and listen. I have to imagine that's why this book is so raw and straightforward. There's no bending her words here, like she's encountered in so many print interviews she's given, and there's no giant media wave like with music. Sure, anyone can read it, but no one's going to casually stumble into the book like they would a song. Mostly, it's for the fans who she knows are waiting for her arms open.
As for the poems themselves, I touched a bit on the range of the more intense subject matter, but she also hints at fame, at falling in love, that the worst break ups that aren't because they hurt you, long distance relationships, love, having bad days, not loving yourself, and realizing that you're worth more than you think. She also has one poem towards the beginning called "I Want To Be A Writer!" that perfectly sums up what it's like to be a writer. How it's not a choice, it's just a way of existence. That it's beautiful and messy and gross and wonderful and scary all at once. She also has seemingly random poems that pull the lens away from deep introspection of herself and turns it on characters or other people like "The Professional" where she details how good of a holiday girlfriend she is that felt like a funny character exercise and "Travis" where she wonders about the lifestyle of an old friend. Then there's "Smoke" where she contemplates the writer's fascination with smoke before stumbling into the cliche herself. She also has quiet realizations like in "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility". The poem reminds me of "929" where she talks about how she's not allowed to die or want to die anymore because she has so many of us looking up to her. The poem is two lines, but it's a fascinating portrait of a person realizing they've become larger than themselves. She seems to be one of the few celebrities that contemplates the true weight of fame and understands what she means to have not just millions of eyes staring at you but millions of fragile hearts invested in you.
Another fun part of the book is that a lot of songs start as poems in general, and that's definitely true for Halsey. Reading through, I found so many pieces of lyrics, other version of lyrics, or poems that got picked apart for a whole song concept. I found myself noting down the final lyrics and the songs they came from next to the lines. Almost always, I loved what the other lines around the lyrics added to them and wished they could've made the song too. It's like the songs are the summaries and the poems are the books. She also included the poem she performed at the Women's March in 2018, which is still one of her most powerful pieces of writing. In the context of the other poems in the book, it becomes even stronger.
Also, for the poems being from a mix of years and stages of life and relationships, there was still a narrative arc. She starts the book unsure. She starts the book full of self loathing. She loses herself in the people she writes about. But, in the final poems, she contemplates how far she's come. In the final poem, "I Wish I Were Manic All The Time", she finally admits to us that she has learned to love herself. That there are parts of herself she truly cherishes, and it's the best note to end the book on. It's one of the most marked up poems in my book. In some excerpts from the poem, she writes, "My mind is messy but it's beautiful... I don't say it often, but I'm proud of the woman that I turned out to be". Later in the poem, she discusses her true self, not the one that's been handed to her through the garbled media portrayal, "You might think I'm crazy/Wild and young and free/But really I'm just: careful, quiet, overthinking, analyzing like/It's logic over moving and emotion brought me nothing but disaster". And as a final set of lines to share, she contemplates the relatable line between who you are and who the book character version of yourself would be "Wish I were a wild child like I say I am/Wish I really meant it when I say that I don't give a damn/Wish that I were manic all the time/ Think I like me better when I'm outside the lines". Just like with her albums, the ordering is perfect, and she hits the perfect final note.
I guess I'll end this review with my initial list of favorite poems. If you've read it yet, please leave your favorites in the comments! I really want to chat about the book.
"I Want to Be a Writer!" (why does this have to be so relatable)
"Stockholm Syndrome Part 1"
"Wish You The Best" (this is a super long, brilliant version of "I'm Not Mad")
"The Tourist" (one of the few in a series about long distance relationships)
"The Breakup" (this is totally gut wrenching in 6 lines)
"Bad Day: 1"
"A Story Like Mine" (this is the Women's March Speech)
"Forever Cursed In Love Are The Observant" (this title is my favorite poem title ever)
"I Would Leave Me If I Could" (except maybe this one... it's the perfect book title. she wrote this poem as a teen)
"Bring on the Black!"
"Something For Them"
"I Wish That I Were Manic All The Time"
This list has gotten longer and shifted from my original list of 17 on my first read through. There are so many poems that have stuck in my brain that I can't stop turning over in my head. I didn't even list all of them here. I truly love this book. I hope I might have found some of the right words to express that.
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