Should You Think of Your Lyrics as Poetry?


2018-08-07 Essay

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by Alec Plowman

“Is Bob Dylan a poet?”
I was listening to Dylan’s classic “Highway 61 Revisited” album the other day when this question popped into my mind. Dylan’s lyrics have certainly been described as “poetic,” but does that make them poems per-se?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwOfCgkyEj0

It turns out I’m not the only one who’s been hung up on the lyrics vs. poetry debate. I soon found a post from Matthew Zapruder on The Boston Review, which argued that presenting lyrics as poetry “reflects not a commercial move on [the writer’s] part, but a desire for the words they write to be taken seriously.”

“What I suppose some musicians want is not to be considered poets, but for their lyrics to be read with the same respect they imagine poems are.”

Musicians might want for their lyrics to be afforded the respect of poetry, but should they approach lyric writing as if they were writing poetry?
I’ve been thinking this over for a while now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t.
Why?

Well, that’s what this blog post is here to answer.

Let’s dive in!

Lyrics are never taken on their own

As Zapruder goes on to note in his article, there are some pretty fundamental distinctions between poems and lyrics that need to be considered.

“Words in a poem take place against the context of silence… lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way.”
I think that he’s right on the money here. It’s not to say that lyrics are any less valuable than poems, but that conflating the two is to ignore the unique characteristics of each form.
This is something that composers and lyricists need to remember when writing songs if they want their lyrics and vocal melody to gel with real impact. Words that are meant to be sung need to flow in a particular way. Stanzas, rhyming structures and syllable use all need to be taken into consideration. It is not simply a case of taking a piece of poetry (meant to be read or spoken) and fitting it to music.

Anyone who has ever tried to sing a poem to a piece of music verbatim will know what I am talking about. It very rarely works, ending up disjointed and unhinged in the process.

I can think of one record where this way of writing songs actually delivered the goods – “The Holy Bible” by Manic Street Preachers. On that record, frontman James Dean Bradfield was given a book of poems by lyricist Richie Edwards and fit them, unaltered, to the music he’d written.

It sounds totally disjointed and unhinged, but that’s what the album was supposed to sound like, hence why it pays off. It’s the exception that proves the rule.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rl2Jv4dzFqg

A place for rock n’ roll poetry

So lyrics and poems are not interchangeable. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for poetics in your song’s words.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEr1Qn_UvVU

It’s telling that many of the greatest lyricists in popular music had a poetry background. Patti Smith began her career as a member of the St Mark’s Poetry Project in New York. Jim Morrison, who considered himself a poet first, lyricist second, published two volumes of poetry (“The Lords” and “The New Creatures”) in his lifetime. Lou Reed, meanwhile, studied poetry under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse (a posthumous collection of Reed’s poems, “Do Angels Need Haircuts?,” was published earlier this year.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan, who awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

“Poetic expressions” is the key term here, and it sums up the work of Lou, Patti, Jimbo and Zimmy pretty well. All four were clearly inspired by poetry. Some were themselves poets. But when it came to writing lyrics, they approached them as lyrics, mindful that their words would eventually be paired with melody, and that their meaning was informed by that pairing.

The “poetic expressions” may be what set their lyrics apart from the pack, but it was being mindful of the musicological element that made those lyrics work in the first place.

Conclusion

I guess the take-home from all of this is that, great lyrics, like great art in general, come from casting your net wide in the sea of culture.

The likes of Dylan did just that. They brought the poetic to pop music and elevated the genre as a result. But, the reason their songs resonated with so many people, that they were able to connect on a mass level, was that, for all the “poetic expressions” in their work, they never forgot they were writing songs.