I love songs, and I love song
lyrics. To me, a great song lyric is an artistic achievement that stands alongside
the novel, the short story, the play, and the poem as one of the finest of written
creations. It has its own logic, its own rhythm, and its own reason to be. And
most importantly perhaps, it is like no other form, in that its formal constraints
are unique unto itself.
Why then, has song lyric been
so rarely considered a legitimate form of poetry?
Before I attempt to address
this, let me say that of course song lyric has had its heroes, its heydays,
and its moments of literary inclusion. Think of sixties-era icons like Bob Dylan
or Joni Mitchell, ageless innovators like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, post-punk
aggressors like Nick Cave and Patti Smith, alterna-svengalis like Henry Rollins,
even recent pop culture divas like Jewel. These are songwriters who have been
recognized for their lyrics, and have all at one time or another had their lyrics
published in book form as poetry. And what of legendary workhorses like Jerry
Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carole King, Hoagy Carmichael, or Bernie Taupin? These
individuals may not be as well-known as the artists who recorded their works,
but to those in the know, these are lyricists as poetic as any writer out there.
But go to any internet search engine (that barometer of modern cultural mores),
and you will see poetry coming in under the heading of "arts" while
music languishes under "entertainment." Given this reality, one can't
help but feel that a value judgment has been made.
I ask you to consider how
often we hear lyrics referred to as "poetic", or as having a "poetry"
to them, and how often we ourselves refer to them as such. Certainly it's common
enough to suggest the existence of proper poets in the ranks of the songwriters,
and proper poems in the archives of song. And yet we rarely, if ever, see these
works treated as poetry. Why?
Maybe it's because we're just
so used to the omnipresence of fundamentally underwritten songs that rely on
music to compensate for their poetic lackings that we've come to view them as
separate forms altogether, forever banishing song lyric from the realm of poetry.
Certainly many a great vocalist has emoted their way through lyrics that read
on paper like the most pedestrian of Hallmark cards. And it's certainly true
that composers have used what could be considered musical crutches like the
swell of a string section, the crash of a cymbal, the roar of an electric guitar,
to create a drama that isn't present in the lyric itself. But is it fair then
to shrug off all song lyric accordingly, because of a proliferation of bad lyrics
that rely on music and voice to sell their story? Hardly. It's no more fair
than if we were to write off poetry in general because we've found too many
bad examples of it.
It could be that the problem
is how song lyric tends to read on the page. It's true that most song lyrics,
particularly in the realm of modern popular music in all its many incarnations,
can be insipidly simplistic. Repetitive imagery, obvious rhyme schemes, bludgeoningly
sing-songish rhythms, all these curses have plagued the land of the lyric. But
cannot the same be said of "poetry" as well? Is bad writing unique
to song lyric? Again, hardly. In fact, poetry and song lyric share a great many
negative commonalities, none more common, for example, than the redundancy of
trite subject matter.
Can it be some sort of claim
of linguistic purity, by virtue of its status as a purely written form, that
keeps the halls of poetry closed to the outside world of mongrel forms such
as song lyric? But what then of Dylan Thomas' famous readings? Surely we must
admit his works came alive in previously unforeseen and magical ways when he
delivered them aurally. Or think of the Beats and their "bop prosody",
a series of literary experiments and expansions that forever changed the creative
landscape of modern poetry. And think of poets such as John Digiorno or Amiri
Baraka, whose works are often designed only to be heard aloud and never read.
In fact, modern poetry's most successful commercial and reputational surge has
been the rise of "spoken-word" as a genre unto itself. Take former
musician turned spoken-word artist Exene Cervenka, who is now a successfully
published and respected author of poetry, and compare her to the celebrated
modern-folk icon Ani Difranco. Are they so different as writers that only one
can be considered a proper poet?
Perhaps the poetic bias against
song lyric stems from the notion that a song is simply too structured an entity,
that there is just not enough room within its narrow system to allow for truly
poetic expression. This has certainly been argued before, and many a well-intentioned
and talented songwriter has battled accusations of compromise (both from within
and without), that somehow they've sacrificed content for the sake of form.
But consider the haiku: surely this is as strict a form, if not stricter, than,
say, the three-minute pop song? Yet haiku as a genre has given birth to some
of the most beautiful, and beautifully complex, pieces of writing in history.
And the rebellions to, and re-thinkings of, haiku as well have left us with
wondrous literary gifts. Han-Shan's visionary "Cold Mountain Poems"
could surely not have come to be without their author deliberately throwing
off the cultural, situational, and linguistic strictures of haiku. I think the
point here is that it's through the author's relationship to the form at hand,
be it adversarial, reverential, naively semi-aware or academically obsessive,
that great new works are born.
This is really the heart of
the matter for me, this issue of formal constraint. Each type of creation, be
it a novel, a play, a poem, or whatever, has its own sets of rules. Following
and/or reacting to them is how we create new examples of the form. And as difficult
and limiting as certain of these rules can be, it's through building a creative
relationship with these structures that we find our moments of artistic enlightenment.
Just as it was e.e. cummings' frustration with the limitation of having to put
words on a page that led him to his revolutionary style of literary presentation,
or Jack Kerouac's frustration with punctuation and the rules of grammar that
led him to develop his "Spontaneous Prose," so too was it Rainer Maria
Rilke's respect for tradition and love of language that drove him to create
his beloved Elegies. And the same goes for the songwriters. For every aural
experiment to come from the minds of revolutionaries as diverse as The Beatles
on "The White Album" to Chuck D on Public Enemy's "Fear of a
Black Planet," there is a Tracy Chapman or a Bono who can temporarily re-ignite
the lyrical souls of their cultural compatriots with a fast car or a street
with no name, in and around three-and-a-half minutes.
Song lyric is a form like
any other, complete with its own set of rules and constraints, no different
at this level then a Shakespearean soliloquy or a haiku. Its verses, choruses,
bridges and codas, its rhyme schemes and its rhythms, these are merely rules
of poetic form, guidelines within which (and around) the writer is forced to
work if he or she wishes to create a new contribution to the canon. And as cultures
have evolved, devolved, progressed and regressed, these so-termed rules of form
have come and gone, blended and morphed, paled in the face of new times, and
laughed down old ones, all the while mirroring the liquid nature of the worlds
they strive to explain. And the artists have responded in kind, adding, almost
inadvertently, through their inevitable relationships to form, an extra layer
of sensory content and power to their works, that being the ability to represent,
to capture, if you will, a certain sense of time and place.
I am a songwriter. It's how
I survive financially, and it's how I survive emotionally. I love to write songs
like very little else that I have ever done. But more simply said, I just love
to write. I have written rhymed poetry and free verse, short stories and novellas,
even a novel. And periodically, I have been fortunate enough to be published
in these fields. Yet without fail, I have returned to the song, time and time
again. And not because of any career obligations or desires. Not because I owe
another album to my record label, or another batch of songs to my publisher.
And not because I like to stand on a stage and strum my guitar to the hoped-for
delight of a listening public. No, I keep returning to the song because its
peculiar set of constraints has freed my heart, mind, and soul in a way no other
form has done. I have never felt that my song lyrics have been compromised for
the sake of "working" within a song format. Rather, my best lyrics
are my best because they say exactly what I want to say.
So, even if I have made any
headway in elucidating my conviction that good song lyrics ought to be considered
a legitimate form of poetry, the question still remains as to whether they ought
to be experienced in any context other than that of the song. That is to say,
should we read them? I can only answer yes, because when they're truly good,
they provide a multi-dimensional richness that grants you new insight each new
way and time you experience them. Just as I have re-discovered "Kaddish"
anew each time I have seen footage of Allen Ginsburg reading it, so too has
the on-paper re-reading of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" re-enlightened
me, and re-altered the subsequent experience of listening to the song as recorded.
To truly know a great work,
one must learn all it has to offer, and to truly be a great work, it must offer
In our home is a wonderful two-volume edition of Funk and Wagnalls' new practical standard dictionary of the english language. It is bound in wondrously aged burgundy leather veined with black, its pages are brown and yellow at their edges, it smells like a grandmother's attic, and it is dated 1956. In it, a poem is defined as follows:
"a concrete expression
of feeling and imagination in verse, beautiful, harmonious, and illuminating."
I hope I can rest my case.
Copyright © 2003 Christopher "Preacher Boy" Watkins