Can Song Lyrics be Poetry?

I don’t know jack squat about poetry.

Hey, poets don’t smile!

Yeah, I can knock out some funny limericks or comical haiku, but I don’t have the understanding, experience, or insight to identify good poetry, much less create it. I liked Auden in college, but that’s because the professor assigned it and we talked about it in class. I’d probably like a different poet if he’d picked that one.

On the other hand, I am a songwriter who puts lyrics to his music. And I suppose I do grasp one thing about poetry: Like most art, it is meant to elicit emotion. In a similar vein, my aim is to compose lyrics that suit the emotional vibe of the music. But I still don’t think I’m writing poetry.

Lots of writing can be poetic without being poetry. Dickens’ opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities has a poetic rhythm, but it’s still prose. Same deal with music lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen is a genius at capturing the essence of American culture, with its yin and yang of hope and cynicism, through a simple reference to an intersection in New Jersey or a waitress named Juanita refilling his coffee. Johnny Cash made us feel sympathy for drunks and thieves by distancing himself, lyrically, from a judgmental society with no forgiveness for people’s mistakes. The rapper Nas transports listeners to a ghetto few of them will ever experience when he laments the short-sighted, ultimately fatal choices young, urban poor men sometimes make.

But without Springsteen’s raspy vocals over rousing keyboards and guitars, does the line “Tramps like us… baby we were born to run” come across as poetic? Are Johnny Cash’s born losers as likeable without minor-key arpeggios to prop them up?

That’s more like it.

A critical distinction between poetry and song: Lyrics are beholden to the music. A poet can break meter if she feels like it. She might find the expression more powerful that way. But songwriters don’t have that freedom. When we get to the end of the measure, we’d better have our lyric beats in, because the next measure ain’t waiting around for the singer to catch up. I’ve written plenty of lyrics that worked in my head but didn’t fit when sung, and I had to rephrase them for the sake of the melody. Phrasing is the most important element of pop, rock, or soul aside from the melody, because your hook doesn’t work if people can’t sing along.

Here is a set of lyrics for a song I wrote last year. It’s a fully composed tune with vocal melody, guitar, and drum arrangements. Does this piece qualify as poetry, as lyrics with poetic elements, or just plain old dumb words to a rock song? Don’t worry, you won’t hurt my feelings. I wasn’t trying to write poetry, and the words fit the beat perfectly when sung.

(This song is about living in the moment, something I’m not always good at):

BUGS

Bugs circling ‘round and ‘round the streetlight

Down below, she takes my hand in hers

She twirls around, catching air

Her dress flares

I want to put my hands on her

Is she the one?

I don’t care; I’m just having fun now

No life stories tonight

Forget yesterday

What does it matter?

Let’s try not to think of tomorrow

We walk hand in hand, don’t want it to end

I just need an hour to borrow

We pass the lights, drinkers laughing

The waves crashing in the darkness somewhere out there

She sinks into me

No one bothers to see

I hold her and I don’t want to share

I don’t need to know

Where we’ve been or where we might be going

Maybe we can be here, now

Forget yesterday

What does it matter?

Let’s try not to think of tomorrow

We walk hand in hand, don’t want it to end

For just one more hour

I plead to the sky but all I see is

Bugs circling ‘round and ‘round

(© 2011 Eric John Baker)

So do you think song lyrics are a form of poetry? I don’t, but I’m open to being proven wrong.

My geeter. Well, it’s a photo of one exactly like it.

While we’re talking music, my friend and fellow blogger Bryan Edmonson did a quick piece on his blog about The Hives, who are from Sweden but, somehow, sound nothing at all like ABBA. Go figure. You can read (and listen) by clicking on this discolored word.

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I’m in a link-dishing mood today, I guess. Here’s my review for Skyfall, the new James Bond film, elsewhere on the web.

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8 responses to “Can Song Lyrics be Poetry?

  • nrhatch

    Some song lyrics read well as poetry. Some/many/most don’t ~ they need a singer to elevate the words before they resonate with us.

    But there are times that I’m reading a song lyrics on the jacket/sleeve that the words read like poetry, even when the song has been silenced.

    Cat Stevens comes to mind.
    Also George Harrison, Enya, Collective Soul, etc.

    So it depends on the song writer . . .

    • ericjbaker

      The test is to read a set of lyrics from a song and artist you’ve never heard, so you can’t be influenced by your prior knowledge.

      Some early Bowie material sounds poetic when sung, but I wonder if it would be considered good stand-alone poetry.

  • evilynn

    Really good question. Difficult to answer, you’d have to work out what you mean by poetry, as there are so many different forms. You could simply say it’s poetry because it rhymes, but if the words don’t resonate without the music, then it doesn’ t really work. Some of Springsteen’s stuff qualifies, I think, a lot of great lyrics do not. I love the Stones, but don’t think their lyrics are poetry, they serve the music. In any case, to me, the music is what is really important, but that’s just a personal feeling, as I find it easier to express myself with music than with lyrics. I have co-written songs with others, where they wrote the lyrics and I came up with the melody but have only written a handful of lyrics myself, which I definitely don’t consider to be poetry.

    A friend of mine is a real poet and her work just jumps off the page right into your soul, no music necessary there at all. She asked me if I could put some of them to music, but they don’t have the necessary rhythmic quality for that, unless you like freeform jazz.. Patti Smith comes to mind here, she managed to find a way of converting peotry into Rock’n’Roll. Hmmm. Intersting topic.

    • ericjbaker

      Good points. I’m not sure there’s an answer. I know what you mean about certain poetry pulling you in. The best I can hope for with my lyrics is to click with the melody and draw emotion from the listener by putting the right chords in place.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Hi Eric. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve dabbled in poetry in the past, and like to think that I was good-ish (how’s that for a resounding endorsement?) at is. Song lyrics, on the other hand, have totally eluded me the few times I’ve tried to write some, and attempting to set my poems to music fell utterly flat. I’m really not that good a musician, though, so perhaps that, and not my writing skills, was the source of the problem.

    As to your lyrics, I too would lean towards not poetry. This is because their meaning can be taken quite literally – what you’ve written about seems to be what’s actually going on. I was taught that poetry is always about what’s presented and something else – that the job of poetry is to use figurative language (metaphor, simile, various sonic devices, etc.) to create images/sensations in one’s mind that are related-yet-not to the literal meaning, thereby serving to enhance the literal meaning.

    But then, song lyrics are accompanied by music, which itself offers another layer of meaning. I think it’s more apt to call songs in and of themselves poetry, rather than just the lyrics.

    • ericjbaker

      Ooh. Great answer. I think you nailed it. I guess lyrics work as part of a “sonic poem.” Meaning, you have to hear it, or you aren’t getting the poetry.

      Hopefully I’ll get that tune recorded one of these days, and people will get to hear how the words and music work together to create a new thing.

  • brianhmoll

    Nobody understands poetry, least of all poets. It’s like women in romantic comedies. Or quantum mechanics. Nobody understands. And as far as lyrics, I bet Jay Z could rap the hell out of a Sonnet.

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