Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Three

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.

 

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Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part Two

Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes,  jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.

Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.

As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.

Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.

Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**

In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.

Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.

So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.



My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

 

As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****

And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.

The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.

Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.

You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”

But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.

Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.

One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.

Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.

He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”


A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.

 

Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”

You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.

Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.

For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde”  by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.

 

 

 

 

 

*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley  which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.

**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.

***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag  in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.

****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.

*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,”  or “This Land is Your Land”  as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit”  is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.

Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand

 

If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.

 

 

 

*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.