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.

Becky Fisher: My first memory of a poem – and the three things it taught me.

My very first memory of poetry is being taught a poem that my mum herself had learned off-by-heart as a student at university. ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, a short poem of just nine lines, has a wonderful story of its own: it came to the poet, Caedmon, in a dream, after he fled a party at which he was supposed to perform. Caedmon, you see, is terrified of speaking in front of people, and so he slips out of the party before his turn comes around. He falls asleep, and is visited by a mysterious figure who tells him to sing of “the beginning of all things”. To Caedmon’s surprise, the words start flowing and he is able to perform his poem to all the other monks. There’s one more interesting fact about this poem that you need to know: it’s written in Old English, the language spoken in England between (roughly) the sixth and twelfth century.

In hearing Caedmon’s story and his poem, I learned three important things:

1) You can experience a poem without understanding it

The language of Old English feels familiar to us in its rhythms and sounds, but it’s not easy to understand the words themselves. Our vocabulary and pronunciation has changed so much over the intervening centuries that we can’t just jump into an Old English poem and get it right away.

But I found that that doesn’t really matter. In fact, the experience of letting the sounds wash over me, and of learning to form those unfamiliar words with my own mouth, was an enjoyable and valid experience in itself. Perhaps you could try listening to a poem read in a language not your own: what can you understand from the pace, the rhythm, the music of the words as you listen?

2) Inspiration can strike unexpectedly

Caedmon’s inspiration comes to him in a completely unexpected way. We might not all be so lucky as to resolve our writer’s block thanks to a dream of a mysterious stranger, but there’s something about listening out for inspiration and being ready to respond. When we’re stuck with a piece of work, doing something completely different like going for a walk or listening to a piece of music can be just what we need to unlock our inspiration. Perhaps now is a good time to look around you – really look, with an open mind as well as open eyes – and find something to inspire you to write a poem of your own.

3) Poems connect us

When I was little, I remember feeling that this poem connected me to what seemed an impossibly ancient world, of songs and dreams, and I have since always looked at poems as a way to connect me to someone else’s experience. Now more than ever, we need these connections to help us understand each other, and to keep our bonds strong while we’re apart.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I went on to write my own poems (just for me) throughout my childhood, as a way to tell stories and create glimpses into different worlds. I also studied Old English at university, and eventually wrote my doctoral thesis about this wonderful, confounding, intricate language. I now work as the CEO of the English Association, a learned society for English, and a charity which works to further the knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of the English language and its literatures. It is a privilege to share the joy of high-quality children’s books through English 4-11 Picture Book Awards, a competition which recognises the best children’s picture books as recommended by teachers and education experts.

Becky Fisher

Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.

 

Photo of Caedmon’s Cross by Rich Tea, by Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0