Song Lyrics as Poetry
Every semester, I give my 2nd year students a chance to earn extra credit by reciting a poem. My only requirements are that it be 16 lines long and that I approve it first, and my primary restriction is that it cannot be the lyrics to a song. They’re always disappointed by that limitation, mostly because they all know songs by heart and they’d rather not have to learn something new, but it generally starts a discussion over what is and isn’t poetry, and why I feel song lyrics generally aren’t.
I want to be clear–there are tons of song lyrics which are poetic, and which make great use of the same tools many poets use. But it seems to me that the musical part of a song has as much of an effect on the emotional response a listener has to the lyrics as the lyrics do themselves. Change the music, you change the response, and there are a great number of fairly famous (and infamous) covers of songs which proves this point, I think.
And the same can happen when you remove the music from a song completely. This semester, I presented the following to my class undated and without the poet’s name attached, along with five other poems. None of my 54 students recognized it. Do you?
I am the stone that the builder refused.
I am the inspiration, the visual
that made Lady sing the blues.
I am the spark that keeps your idea bright.
the same spark that lights your way
so that you can know
your left from your right.
I am the ballot in the box,
the bullet in the gun,
the inner glow that lets you know
to call your brother “son,”
the story of what’s begun,
the promise of what’s to come,
and I will remain a soldier
until the war is won.
These are the lyrics to the theme song to the TV show The Boondocks, by a rapper named Asheru. They are, I would argue, both poetic and lyrical, but when taken out of their intended context–the music and animation which usually accompany them–it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to interpret them as much more than braggadocio.
Consider these two videos:
Now I don’t know if anyone is going to argue that the lyrics to “Hey Ya” would qualify as poetry, but I think we can agree that one’s emotional reaction to the song is significantly changed by the music that accompanies those lyrics. That’s certainly been the case for everyone I’ve ever showed the second video to–the reactions range from “wtf?” to “I never considered that this was actually a sad song” and everywhere in between.
The point I’m trying to make is that song lyrics seem, to me, to be more closely linked the non-lyrical content than poems are to, say, the way an individual poet or reader reads those lines aloud. Perhaps it’s a difference without distinction, perhaps my lines are no less arbitrary than anyone else’s, but it seems like a significant difference to me, even if it means I find myself in agreement with Billy Collins on something.