In the first two parts I’ve tried as briefly as I can to outline two things surrounding this issue. In part one, I surveyed how poetry moved from an ancient form performed with music to a modern form most typically associated with printed text on a page. In part two I looked at the surprising result of a political decision made in the 1930s that led to a rich cultural mix being encouraged to compose music for non-commercial purposes linked to folk music. 25 years after this decision, a singular singer-songwriter linked that idea with many of the discoveries of Modernist poetry and revolutionized what song lyrics could do.
These two things, the move of poetry away from music and performance in general and the move of song lyrics to utilize all the elements pioneered by the Modernist poets naturally bring this question of “Are these lyrics poetry?” to the fore.
I’m going to try (again as briefly as I can) to deal with the issues brought up by this question. Before I do, I’ll spoil the suspense: I believe song lyrics are poetry, even though I agree to some level with the objections to that idea. On one level, a matter of definition, it ought to be simple to agree: the argument isn’t really that song lyrics aren’t poetry (or that various kinds of performed poetry aren’t poetry) it’s an argument that those things aren’t (or aren’t very often) any good as poetry. As I argued here a couple of years back, “not so great poetry” isn’t worthless, and I doubt the arguments that not so great poetry harms those poems we feel are greater or more accomplished.
What are those objections?
Without music or when printed silently on the page many song lyrics, even effective ones, seem much less effective. It may be 20th century comedian Steve Allen who originated the gag where a pop music lyric is intoned as if it’s a deathless ode. Laughs ensue. Allen liked to remind us that he was a songwriter and the author of serious books, but here, for the bit’s sake he’s showing us his skills as a performer. The unintended air of seriousness is incongruous to the material, he leans hard on the choral repetitions—which are used in poetry, but are used much more often in sung lyrics—and any infelicities in songwriter Gene Vincent’s words that we might ignore in the flow of Vincent’s performance get a raised eyebrow in Allen’s. A performer could do the same to “The Waste Land” or Emily Dickinson and make it ludicrous. And Bullwinkle J. Moose could present the once worthy Longfellow for laughs too.
“Drink in the simple beauty and the profundity of the sentiment…Skitch…”
Context is important in art. “The Waste Land” gained part of its launch velocity because of the trauma of WWI and because the Modernist movement was primed for a weighty masterpiece. But context is even more important in performed work, “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be heard sung with music.
Allen was taking a jazz-snob swipe at rock’n’roll. Here he is providing appropriate context for Jack Kerouac. “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry.”
That if considered as poetry, using the same criteria a critic would apply to poems, many song lyrics fail to meet those criteria. Well, a great many poems that have never heard a note sounded beside them probably fail those criteria too. There are arguments that complex song lyrics fail because they are performed which I deal with below, but I ask: how sure are you your criteria are universal? When folks argue that Kendrick Lamar or Bob Dylan are bad poetry they are almost never arguing “Well, they just don’t work for me.” Instead they maintain that those who feel they do work have been duped or lack the intelligence and skills to appreciate something they posit as more worthy. How many Modernist, now cannon-resident poems, met the criteria of 19th century poetry? Did the Modernists forget how to be modernists? What part of “Make it new” did we forget?
The more I look at poetry, the more I’m surprised that a great many ways of “making poetry” seem to work. I’m pleased by that discovery, while I suspect the criteria people coming across the same discovery would be somewhere between puzzled and disappointed.
When folks answer this question by pointing out ways that song lyrics (generalized in some way) are different from poetry (generalized as well), I often wonder just how narrow their generalized view of poetry is. Poetry expresses itself in so many different ways even without leaving the page. The differences between how Du Fu’s “Spring View” and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” allow us to feel somewhat similar responses to similar situations are immense, larger than the differences between “The Waste Land” and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Complex poetry cannot be appreciated in performance, much less with the distraction of music. I’ve dealt with this briefly elsewhere in this series, but we also need to ask: is complex, analytic, response always called for? In every other art-form I can think of, we allow for various levels of involvement with the art. Because complex poetry can reward deep examination, must it always be approached in all times and places by all people in that way? Audiences differ in their need to understand immediately. “Be Bop a-Lula” is designed to be absorbed with immediacy as expression and as a series of pleasing sounds. Donald Glover’s “This Is America” isn’t, and indeed it’s designed to make you question your pleasure in a text that works like “Be Bob a-Lula.” What the Bob Dylan revolution proved (regardless of how you rate Dylan) is that audiences will accept complex and unconventional expression in song lyrics. Not every hit song has complex lyrics, but complex lyrics can be a hit song.
If lyrics were good in the way complex poetry is good, that’s immaterial or it may even detract from the music which is the main thing an audience wants from a song. Yes, audiences come to songs for various reasons. Have you never loved a song for evolving reasons? With page-poetry I have certainly been attracted to a poem because of the way it sounded, and that pleasure indicated I might want to stick with it a bit (or re-experience that sound-pleasure) to see what else it might be expressing.
Sure, the ancients performed poetry with music, but that was a primitive solution. Literacy and mass-distributed printed matter is a better medium for poetry. I’m not sure about this. I agree that printed poetry allows for a different experience of the text. Alternate reader here Dave Moore has reminded me that it’s helpful if I provide access to the text of what is performed here. Good point! But the Parlando Project is in part a big experiment to see what works if various kinds of poetry are performed along with various music in various ways. I expect to fail, and I expect to succeed.
Speaking of success and failure, if you’re still here, I appreciate the time and attention you have given to read this. I’m both apologetic for its length and its brevity. Here’s a short audio piece, my translation (with a slight 21st century American adaptation I couldn’t resist) of that four-stanza poem that Du Fu wrote about the trauma of a broken country in springtime, the “Spring View” I mentioned above. Here’s a more literal translation of the text. The player for my performance is below.