Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

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.


September 11, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I’m not at all sure about these answers, and would make the case, very strongly, as the guys responding to Billy Collins did, that this is symptomatic of how poetry has drifted. Ok, this is not what Pound necessarily meant by saying poetry shouldn’t drift too far from music, and there is definitely a problem full stop with drums and amplifiers in modern life – the great Beatles writer Ian MacDonald says that when drum and noisy guitar comes in, around 1969, the songwriting takes a huge dip.

    But, still, nevertheless. A strong part of poetry should be memorability. It’s true of all the poets I love: memorable lines, memorable whole poems. And I’m not just talking about rhymed poems, I can think of free verse poems I can recite lots of, by memory. This engages some of what we find in drama, it’s also what dramatists envy in poets. And most of that kind of “drama” in drama is also about the visual, about how the actors interact visually. If you do a staged reading, with everyone sat on chairs, it isn’t so “how they’re said”. Radio plays feel very close to poems, and work on a process of building on what’s been said, and seeming to forget what’s been said, laying the ground for plot twists. This is all about writing, about poetry.

    A key problem in writing is: flattery. Don’t soft-soap your audience, well, not too much. Put it that way, and “poets” in the modern world of “poetry readers” do that too. I meet poetry audiences, songwriting audiences, cabaret audiences, sometimes general audiences. I know it’s possible to get them with the first word, and then build on that. I’m lucky that I’m a natural performer, but there are playwrights who are not, and who write well for natural performers. Your Outkast song is sad to me, in both hearings, it just brazens its way to say, I’m sad but I’d like to be sexy, in the original version. Hey, those of us with sad pasts are constantly in this dilemma, oh, that’s most of us. If only pop poetry was as pop as that, it’s usually too busy being insecure about wanting no other poetry around. I don’t think songwriters are.

    Final point: about the lyric from the TV show you quote. Have you ever translated poetry from another language? From Spanish, for example? Lorca, for example? One gets the sense, and then one tries to modulate to a, which, English speaking audience. Most do it very badly. Langston Hughes did a great, great Lorca. One problem of modern English is a lot of its dialects veer away from simplicity, and hide liars dissemblers and the uptight. At the same time, it’s a great vehicle for the non-Macho. One goes abroad, and speaks other languages, one sees more simplicity, and more Macho. Random thoughts. But the state of language is not simple, and it is to the language between languages that the poet addresses him or herself. I find the poetry world too becalmed and stuffy, at the same time I find it tuned to sensitivity. So songwriting is a purgative and a poison for all of that.

    Comment by Ira Lightman | September 12, 2010 | Reply

  2. I used Joanna Newsom’s “Inflammatory Writ” as an adjunct when I taught “Introduction to Poetry” at Quinnipiac one year. I arranged the lyrics on a page in a paragraph, then asked the students to break it into lines. After we discussed the text, I then played them the song, and we discussed how hearing the song — especially in Newsom’s voice — changed or didn’t change how they approached the lyrics.

    Comment by Michael | September 14, 2010 | Reply

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