Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website PoetryZone for children and teachers, which has just been going for more than 20 years. He has published forty books for children. A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award.

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