POETIC LYRICS / LYRICAL POETRY?
Norman Warwick thinks one is as good another
Sometimes a poem will make a good song lyric, but don’t be surprised to find that your lyric makes a bad poem. It all has to do with the difference between words that are meant to be spoken (or sung) and words meant to be read.
In fact, the website Omniglot (left), “the online encyclopedia of writing systems & languages”, offers seven main differences between written and spoken English, four of which you’ll find to be accurate representations of the differences between song lyrics and poetry.
To paraphrase Omniglot’s description of the differences and apply them to poetry and song lyrics:
- Poetry uses complex wordings and representations, while song lyrics makes more use of repetitions, incomplete sentences, and other devices to make the language come across as more natural and relaxed.
- Writers of published poetry don’t receive immediate feedback from their audiences, while a song lyric’s strength is its ability to immediately affect the listener and partner with other song components.
- Poems can make use of layout, colour and other graphic-based techniques to inject further meaning to their words. While lyricists can also do this, listeners to lyrics are often unaware of the graphical layout.
- Most poems will make use of the rules proper grammar, only using slang for effect. Song lyrics will tend to use words and phrases that include a mix of improper grammar, slang, and other things that make the lyric appear casual and familiar.
photo 2 For songwriters that are known for their poetic lyrics, such as Bob Dylan (with whom Mark Knopfler workewd on Blind Willie McTell (right), Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others, you’ll find that their lyrics are thought-provoking and stimulating. But you will also find:
- Their lyrics use mainly common, everyday words that a 6th grader would likely know.
- Their lyrics rely on the immediacy of the effect of those words. There’s generally no need to go back over the words (even though doing so can yield deeper secrets).
- Their lyrics will usually alternate between observational, narrative-style words and emotional words, even without the song being in a standard verse-chorus format.
Most problems with song lyrics can be solved by simply reading the lyric aloud, making sure that each line sounds effortless to read and shows a common sense approach to the pattern of pulses and rhythms. Forcing rhymes and being negligent of a word’s inherent inner rhythm will also be problems to avoid.
[The best lyrics pull the listener in by raising and lowering the emotional content as the song progresses. Watch this video for hints on how that’s done]:
Matthew Zapruder (left) is author of two collections of poems as well as co-translator of Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems of Eugen Jebeleanu. Writing in The Botson Review on line in 2012 he offered another theses on the definitions of poetry and lyric
What is the difference between poetry and song lyrics? I am often asked this question by students or casual readers of poetry. While it’s easy to give the answer that poems don’t have any music behind them and song lyrics do, that doesn’t really explain anything.
Many musical artists present their song lyrics as poetry. This reflects not a commercial move on their part, but a desire for the words they write to be taken seriously. It is certainly true that poems are taught (for better or worse) in classrooms and made a part of the canon of literature, whereas songs, especially popular ones, usually are not. If song lyrics are studied in school, often it is ethnographically or anthropologically, to learn something about a culture, not as literature per se. 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.
It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song. This desire presumes that poems, because they are “literature,” must be serious, that is, written in forms that reflect obvious mastery of literary mannerisms (whether formal, like rhyme or metrical language, or something more elusive like elaborate fanciness of some kind). And it presumes that what is valuable about lyrics is how they reflect those literary values and skills.
These might not seem like big issues to a lot of poets and poetry specialists, who are familiar with poetry that has qualities of song lyrics, and vice versa. But people who are not as familiar with contemporary poetry do understandably make a distinction that on the one hand poems are “literary” and on the other songs are “popular,” i.e. written in a language regular people can understand.
The biases inherent in such a widespread distinction do a disservice to both poetry and song. By holding poetry to a literary standard, and either granting or denying that standard to song lyrics, we locate the worth of an artistic endeavor in the most superficial qualities of language, ones that are actually peripheral to what makes a poem worthwhile.
In fact, I do think there are important and fascinating differences between lyrics and poems, just not the ones that are usually focused on. Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, 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. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.
As for the question of whether poems can function as song lyrics, the answer seems to be, in the right hands, absolutely yes. Just to take a few recent examples,
Gabriel Kahane, Michael Zapruder, AroarA, Jason Collett, Eric Moe, and Missy Mazzoli (Victoire) have all set poems by contemporary poets to music, with exciting and gorgeous results. These composers recognize, it seems to me, the essential qualities of language in poetry. These musical artists use their considerable skill and sensitivity to design music that moves around and with the poems, never overloading them with musical information or tormenting them into overly strained forms to serve a musical structure, two of the most noticeable qualities of failed musical-poetic collaborations.
To say that this means song lyrics are less literary than poems, or require less skill or intelligence or training or work to create, is patently absurd (and, in the case of rap music, patronizing). But that does not mean that song lyrics are poems. They might sometimes accidentally function like poems when taken out of a musical context, but abstracting lyrics from musical information is misleading and beside the point. It seems to me far more productive to ask how lyrics in songs relate to musical information, and how poems relate to the silences (cultural and actual) that surround them, and to recognize that lyrics and poetry, while different genres with different forces and imperatives, have both more and less in common than we might think, and are endeavors of equal value.
I have some arguments of my own, based on twenty yearfs of experience as a member of the contemporary folk duo with Colin Lever in Lendaear. Colin was a good guitarist and a pretty great composer, creating riffs that hung around forever on our folk scene. In particular here, I am thinking of Doing The Spacewalk, written as a poem, on my own, a year or two before I first showed it to Colin. We were ostensibly rehearsing in my living room, although rehearsal being held on a Monday evening, we were actually more likely to be arguing over Wanderers´ performance a day or two earlier..
Colin played me a chugging, repetitive four bars with a strong bassline and to my mind sounded science fictional. He asked what I´d got and I showed him my three line poem (no chorus because it wasn´t a lyric !)
I read the poem as he played his riff and our telepathy at fiding a timing and a rhythm came into play. Colin quickly built a bit of a bridge between the second and third verse and we had a new piece. I spoke the verses as if I were an astronaut speaking into his radio and describing to people on earth just how the great vew was from up here.. It worked, there was something special and meaningful about it, and we would play it to a pin drop silence in the folk clubs for the next couple of years
When we then took a collections of our songs, music, lyrics, poetry (even then we weren´t sure of how to identify our wares) and took them into the recording studio. We had selected twenty compositions (fifteen of our own and a handful of covers) and one of those originals was Doing The Spacewalk. It hadn´t changed since we had first cobbled it together: it was still the kind of spoken word to guitar accompaniment of the kind that seemed very worrying to booking agents at the time,
When Producer Dave Howard heard the guitar run he suggested some fuzz and fade which was all technology to us but he created a sound that seemed to be echoing from space and my spoken voice seemed as if they were coming out a tin can millions of miles away. We were immediately thrilled, as Dave seemed to have captured the theatrical element that Lendanear was all about.
As we listening to it in the studio, Dave´s wife Helen came and in listened with us. Dave and Heln were actually a big name and much admired on our local folk scene performing the songs of Alan Bell and oldies such as Poverty Knock. I was surprised, therefore when she said she would like to sing this song. What song, we only had a rhythm guitar and a spoken voice? There was rhythm , perhaps, but there was no melody. Dave suggested that whatever melody Helen found could be treated in the same way as the existing production, with rise and fall and swoop and distortion.
Helen did an incredible job and she and Colin came up with a tune they sang in call and response fashion and Dave made it all sound like it was being played by Pink Floyd the dark side of the moon. So, suddenly, what had been a news bulletin and guitar piece had become a song, albeit one we could never re-produce live. However for club gigs I could now leave Colin to play and sing the song, without all the studio magic. That, we recaptured by preceding the song with some spoken extractions form Space Oddysey, and a fading Can You Hear Me Major Tom, as Colin faded his guitar and vocals at the end.
Interestingly, as we consider Peter Pearson´s observation of poetry and lyric when speaking of Mark Knopfler, not one word of the original text was entered. The almost child-like naivete of the piece survived being bubbled and squeaked in the studio and came to be a favourite piece of our stage show.
Nevertheless, the song would be recorded twice more, on our second album; Theatre Of The Mind and our third album, Songs For Sarah. For Theatre of The Mind, Dave Howard, Steve was recording us live form a mixing desk at the back of the room of Leigh Folk Club. We had been joined by then by female singer, Catherine Barlow who had a fine voice but also brought a risk of danger to the stage, as she would always try new techniques, and ad lib and generally behave spontaneously, which could sometiomes be quite scary !
We had rehearsed a version of Doing The Spacewalk that had me speaking the words of Space Oodyssey as a long fade as her voice faded and Colin chugged on his guitar. As we turned to that fade on the night of recording, however, Cath suddenly burst into a sing along version of the chorus to Star Trekking and warning the audience that ´there´s cling ons on the starboard bow, Captain and then repeating in ever stranger tones,…. its life, Jim but not as we know it.
Once again though three verses of words somehow survived intact and seemed almost to rise to the occasion, holding their dignity whilst all around was a barely controlled chaos..
The song was re-contextualised on our third album, Songs For Sarah, which actually chronicled the murder of a girl who was a neighbour and friend of mine. That album perhaps typified more than our others what Lendanear could do with our music. By now we could trust in the song to be part of a linear narrative that told a dark tale, and in fact Doing The Spacewalk seemed to illustrate the confidence and happiness of a girl who appeared to have the world at her feet. We placed it next to a much adapted cover version of Back Street Love by Curved Air, complete with gun fire sound effects added in the studio, again by Dave Howard.
Our use of spoken word, which came about only because I can´t sing two consecutive words in key, somehow allowed us to play with meaning, to shift in and out of character, to engage with the audience and move from laughter to pathos in a sentence or two. It also left room for and facilitated ad libs,…. I look back now and see that it was the spoken word that set the tone and became the platform for Colin´s lovely music and unique guitar style,
It all worked best I think when the spoken word and the sung vocals were used to frame and complement the other. The prime example was Moonbeam Dancer, the title track of our first album. It told the story of a story told by a fellow cola-miner to Colin´s late dad. The story told was of the miner leaving his work at the mine to go straight back into darkness of a cinema to watch his dream girl, Greta Garbo.
I became the voice of the smitten miner and told the tale in a breathless voice as I ran to the cinema with Dave Howard adding the sound of coalfields as I ran. The story told that one day Greta Garbo (left) looked down at the miner from on her silver screen and he reached out his hand to dance with her. When we did this live, I would walk into the audience and select a (usually oldish) lady to dance with as Colin broke into a lovely romantic version of Just The Way You Look Tonight as written by Jerome Kern.
This allowed us to engage in banter to overcome the ´not tonight love, not with my gammy leg´ protests from the selected dancer, and to incorporate the deep affectionate aaaw sigh of the audience when I finally returned the dancer to her seat, just as Colin faded the song and I spoke my final two verses of my poem to Great Garbo.
For the length of two and half minutes of poetry, bridged by a sixty second sample from a three and half minute pop song, I had been tonight, Matthew, a long retired coalminer named Coal Ole Joe and an old lady in the audience had become Greta Garbo and,.. when it worked,.. it was magic!
And in case any one out there thinks this a load of nonsense, let me remind you that the name Greta Garbo translates into English as ´a spirit that dances in moon beams.¨
When I look back now on those days I realise that we often thought of some parts of our music as lyrics and other parts of our music as poetry, and sometimes we thought,we were folk ´n good and at others were country n not so good. But we played with time and space, and we stepped in and out of character, we employed metafiction and we employed personification and we were at times revolutionary and at other times conservative, we were strikers and scabs, barbers and babies, street footballers and scallywags and students and teachers, jack-the-lads and gentlemen and did all this without having a clue that we were doing it. The great artists though, like Knopfler, do all of the above so skilfully and so knowingly but, also i think, probably as innocently as did Lendanear. Such artists so well understand tradition and technique that they are able to play with those commodities and treat them with an irreverence always tempered by respect.
When we performed Moonbeam Dancing at a fund-raising event for a drought torn Ethiopia, the show was presented on local radio, and folk legend Archie Fisher described Moonbeam Dancer as a piece of pure radio. Strangely. Dave and Helen Howard (right) were on the same bill with us that day so Archie´s comment was aimed at the four of us.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with Mark Knopfler, nor to Peter Pearson´s claims that Knopfler is a fine poet among contemporary lyricists.
Well, according to Mark Hooper, writing in The Guardian in 2011, chances are, if you’re over 35, you were responsible for one of the 30m worldwide sales of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. It’s the fifth best-selling album in UK chart history, ahead of Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller and Rumours. Only Queen’s Greatest Hits, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, ABBA’s Gold and Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? have sold more. Yet now you are hard-pressed to find anyone who admits to owning it.
Incredibly, despite countless opportunities for a career reassessment, from the guilty pleasures phenomenon to the seemingly endless 1980s revivals of recent years, Dire Straits have somehow remained steadfastly uncool. But look beyond the headbands and tragic hair and you’ll find a truly great songwriter. Frontman Mark Knopfler could write big, brooding epics (Love Over Gold, Brothers In Arms). He could write pure pop (Walk Of Life). But he also has a postmodern appreciation for the ridiculousness of his lot; a self- awareness all too lacking among his peers.
In Money For Nothing he wrote an 80s mega hit, with guest vocals by an 80s megastar (Sting), which achieved its unashamed aim of permanent rotation on MTV. When you consider that the song is written from the point of view of a blue-collar worker muttering “that ain’t working” as he watches overpaid pop stars on MTV, this is no mean feat.
Thankfully, someone appreciates his talents. This month, Knopfler is co-headlining a tour of Europe with Bob Dylan. It’s not the first time they have shared a bill. Knopfler played on Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming and co-produced Infidels for him in 1983. He is also the co-writer of Blind Willie McTell, the song most critics rate as Dylan’s best since his 1975 album Blood in the Tracks. When popular music’s pre-eminent songwriter of the last 50 years wants Knopfler on board, you can’t help thinking the rest of us must be missing something.
But if you don’t trust Dylan’s judgment, consider this: Mark Knopfler is the only official rock dinosaur in the world. The Masiakasaurus knopfleri, a theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period, was named after him in 2001. And if that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.
Peter Pearson, though, is talking about Mark Knopfler´s right have his work read as a poem as well as a right to being heard as a lyric.
So let´s just take a quick look at the dictionary definitions of those two words.
Following the above definition, Collins English Dictionay also lists lyric among several synonyms of the word poet !
I think whether we consider a Knopfler song as a poem or a lyric, one word´s as good as the other.