Lyric poetry

Many people seem to have a sort of love/hate relationship with poetry. People will recite even the most obscure song lyrics with an easy familiarity and almost a pride of ownership – as though those words were their own personal anthem, and the song’s authorship by somebody else merely a quirk of fate.

But if you quote from Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Byron’s “Don Juan”, many people will just grow pale. Rather than an act of cultural inclusion, quoting poetry is often seen as a form of cultural exclusion.

I’m not sure I understand why this is. Is poetry really so fundamentally changed when you add a melody to it? Does verse set to music become magically transform from “high culture” to “low culture” – and only then become valid as a medium of emotional exchange and comfort between ordinary folk?

By common consensus all song writers belong to the people, but few poets can claim that distinction. Perhaps Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings and one or two others. There is a mysterious wall of perception between “song lyric” and “poetry”. And something there is that doesn’t love a wall… Can anybody shed any light here?

5 Responses to “Lyric poetry”

  1. Zabador says:

    I think that the songs are simply more “accessible” and more “fun”. Not every kids get to study poetry at school, and when they get a chance, they way it is done in class is no fun (most of the time is spent to know why the guy wrote what he wrote rather than why he wrote what he wrote — and also, when you “study” too much a thing, you can get disgusted, I guess). While songs are around you all the time, on the radio, TV … you do not need to go to the library to get a taste. When you’re a child, you’re more cool if you bring an ipod to school to share some music rather than if you spend all you time in the library to read… and I guess it then stays when you grow older …

  2. Zabador says:

    Oups, I clicked too fast — I meant rather than feeling the meaning of the words instead of just trying to find out if we was dying or whatever…

  3. Peter says:

    Do they work in differing areas of the brain? Oliver Sacks wrote about the music side and perhaps poetry in his most recent book, Musicophilia, which I can only mention (having not read it yet). Poetry, as taught, is daunting since it goes to the heart of written language and from which philosophy, history, psychology, the novel, the romance, the confession, the algorithm, pretty much everything grows.

    Music hasn’t been saddled with that burden. It is essentially oral, can’t be as completely codified—jazz and rock especially—and rarely ventures into the same realms as poetry: no hits delineate cosmology.

    Poetry is visual (but came from oral tradition where it was more familiar), as John Hollander and others demonstrate. Probably the best known/remembered poems in the English-speaking world are nursery rhymes which are nearly always violent and dark. Those reciting them don’t realize it though. They nearly sing them. There’s a disconnect at work. Is poetry all that unpopular? Leonard Cohen has a lyric in the current New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2009/03/02/090302po_poem_cohen?printable=true. But it’s pretty rare that lyrics make it into that or any other general interest magazine. I digress. T. S. Eliot was a poet of enormous popularity. He could and did fill a stadium.

  4. admin says:

    The “thing you’re supposed to study in school” aspect is definitely a difference. I never liked Shakespeare in high school – it was being forced down our throats. But then when I got to college I completely fell in love with Shakespeare’s work. I still don’t know whether this was because I was able to come to it myself, or because I was now old enough to appreciate it.

    I also remember, when I was around twelve years old, our English teachers wanted to make the study of poetry more relevant to us, so they had us study lyrics by the Beatles and other popular song-writers. I remember thinking at the time that this was kind of odd, since I already knew all those lyrics anyway, and I didn’t need this class to obsess on the layers of meaning and irony in, say, “Eleanor Rigby”. I was doing that anyway.

    I didn’t know about the Leonard Cohen poem in The New Yorker. Interestingly, the poem reads very much like a song lyric. It has that kind of regular insistent rhythm that goes better with music. Unlike, say, Eliot, whose poems create a kind of equivalent of music through rhythmic surprises and change-ups.

    Like the opening lines of Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table; / Let us go, / through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question / Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.”

    It would be pointless to add music to such an astonishing rhythmic construction. It’s perfect just the way it is.

    I didn’t know that about Eliot filling stadiums. That is so cool!!

  5. Peter says:

    Both Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have published their lyrics as poetry books. Both of them have also written novels, so they’ve always been thinking of words outside of musical settings. Paul Simon’s lyrics would serve as poetry nearly as well though I don’t think they’ve ever been published as such. Jewel has published a book of poetry but I don’t recall if they’re her lyrics or something else altogether. I’d not much of a Jewel fan.

    Alan Aldridge created The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics which commissioned a wide range of artists to visualize the poetry of the lyrics. The first book did well enough to merit a sequel.

    It’s a safe bet that Leonard Cohen’s “A Street” in The New Yorker is the lyric to a song appearing soon on an iTunes store near you. While reading it I was trying to hear the music beneath.

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