When is songwriting poetry? 

A guest question from Hannah Lee Jones, poet, and editor at Primal School:

If you're a songwriter and someone refers to your lyrics as "poetry," do you take that as a compliment, as if somehow you've lyrically "transcended"? Or would you prefer that your songs be heard (or lyrics read) on their own terms—apart from traditional poetry as a basis for comparison? 

If you're a poet: Is there a difference in intellectual seriousness between song lyrics and what the literary world would regard as "poetry," or is this just popular perception, a matter of semantics?  

respondents: 5 poets, 1 very occasional poet, 3 songwriters

I think it depends on the type of song and the type of poetry. Lyrics by dedicated songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Mike Hadreas (a.k.a. Perfume Genius) are stunning and totally merit and reward study. Same goes for skilled hip-hop and rap artists. Azealia Banks immediately comes to mind, though her Twitter statements/feuds are a different story. Frank Ocean's new record has some beautiful, heartbreaking lines: “I'm sure we're taller in another dimension/You say we're smaller and not worth the mention.” In high school, Vienna Teng was someone whose ability to tell stories through song made me want to write poems.
        All that said, most lyrics, no matter how well-crafted, don’t quite hold up when seen on a page. Line breaks don’t really exist when it comes to song lyrics so that whole level of tension, surprise, and musicality just doesn’t tend to translate. When I’ve seen lyrics written out in CD pamphlets or online, the “breaks” usually coincide with those end rhymes or seem completely arbitrary. Stanza breaks don’t exist, either. The lyrics appear within the song structure: verse, bridge, chorus. Intro, outro. So I guess I’d say that lyrics, the good lyrics, are poetry meant to be sung or performed in some way. An oral/aural art. Which is how all poetry began, anyway.
        So maybe song lyrics are actually truer to the tradition. The term lyric comes from the instrument lyre. Spoken word poets have done so much incredible work to bring poetry to people outside the academy, to people craving poetry. Some spoken word is astonishing. Some “page” poetry is astonishing. Some bathroom graffiti is astonishing. Mediocre work exists in every form. In my view, it’s classist, elitist, and mind-numbingly boring to value one art form over another simply because one works better written and one works better performed. Of course, the ideal is to do both. But I’ll just say that I’ve been to plenty of boring (page) poetry readings. I’ve probably been the boring reader, sometimes. Maybe more poets should try to memorize their poems, recite them from heart, engage more fully, actually be in the space with their listeners. Or, if you’re terribly shy (but obscenely rich), get Ariana Grande to sing your poems as Celine Dion. That would be best.

I can’t listen to a song like “Watch Her Disappear” by Tom Waits and not think of poetry. It is poetry: “And from a window across the lawn I watched you undress/ wearing your sunset of purple tightly woven around your hair/that rose in strangled ebony curls.” Whatever you think of Tom Waits, you have to hand it to him—you don’t forget those lines.
        And maybe that’s why we might be quick to dismiss the intellectual rigor of song lyrics. The benefit of music and melody means we don’t forget lyrics easily—so isn’t that cheating? Here we poets are, grinding away at the blank page every day and hoping one person will ever read this stuff. But lyrics get that musical spoonful of sugar, and boom, they’re in the brain forever. (Can you imagine how ubiquitous poetry would be if everyone could remember it as well as song lyrics?)
        And even that assessment softens what might really be at the heart of the dismissal of song lyrics as poetry: elitism. Institution-al and otherwise. It seems that the more accessible something is, the more likely it is to be derided as “not art,” or in this case, “not poetry.”
        I don’t know about you, but I don’t need an academic seal of approval on poetry. Move me, and I will see the poetry in that. I think we should be open to the possibility that poetry can exist anywhere. We should hope for as much. It certainly makes this little corner of the literary world more interesting.

Every art attracts a spectrum of practitioners: people who are ambitious and well-informed and seriously talented, and people who are, well, not so much. Song-writers and poets can be utterly brilliant, deserving international audiences. Alternately, they can be good citizens of a local scene, writing and performing well for small audiences they understand deeply. Or they can recycle cliche and generally fail to be thoughtful students of their discipline. I suspect there are more people trying to write song lyrics than poetry without really thinking hard about their art, just because there's more money in music than in poetry, but maybe not—music does, after all, require more expensive equipment.
        There's another difference, though: song lyrics are only part of the art. What's really equivalent to a poem, published either via page or stage, is the whole song in performance. The words are incomplete without the voice. Any verbal art designed for performance, rather than print or web, needs to convey some accessible meaning during the first listening. A printed text can be more verbally difficult than a performed one, because a reader can absorb a poem in a nonlinear way, eye skipping backwards and forwards to straighten out some linguistic complexity. Great lyricists sacrifice some of that potential complexity, but face other formal constraints and opportunities, such as the interplay between syllable and melody.

Personally I would take it as a huge compliment if someone thought my lyrics were poetry. That being said, I would be equally complimented if someone thought one of my songs worked as an instrumental piece, without needing lyrics. 
        Most of the time lyrics only work within the context of the song. Lyrics with music are their own separate art form, one where two halves form the whole. (There are of course exceptions to this, Leonard Cohen being one notable example.)
        For someone to take part of the whole and say that it stands on its own can only be a good thing, even if it wasn't origin-ally intended to do so. To say otherwise would be to let my own ego get in the way of the art. If someone enjoys my art, why should I get to choose the context, or to choose which bit they enjoy?

Poetry, as we read it or hear it performed, relies on lineation and on so very many devices to provoke from within its content utterly surprising feelings and thoughts that are, I believe, unlike the feelings and thoughts provoked by other forms of art. The unique-ness of poetry is the deeply contemplative state it creates for the reader. The enjoyment of a poem is at once a quiet and personal thing and an urge to share and propagate the experience, even to imitate it. All of this comes from nothing but “marks on a page,” as one poet cleanly described the remarkable ability of some-thing so abstract to incite passion, ambition, and longing.
        Song lyrics, on the other hand, have a convention and a structure of their own. While I spent most of last week humming “L.A. Woman” under my breath, I don’t typically walk around my house or drive through town in my car singing Philip Larkin poems. To put words to music is to use, arguably, a much more complex system of rules, one with a deeper hook: harmony and counterpoint, time signature, tonal shifts and dramatic silences, transposition, the lyricism inherent in certain types of melodies and progressions. This system gives words a very different type of power. The range of emotion accessible by, say, switching from Ionian mode to Dorian, or by creating a piece in Phrygian mode, like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (which contains no words but feels like it does), is astonishing.
        When Tom Petty sings “You don’t know how it feels” twice, and then lets a measure of four beats pass before unloading “To be me,” it’s magical. On paper, how would it look? Not good. Freddie Mercury singing “Let me feel your heartbeat grow faster, faster,” one of the more exciting moments in modern music, would make a bad, sentimental poem. Even the conclusion of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, one of the most beautiful things ever created, is a chorus of people repeating treacly lines from Schiller about joy, fervor, brother-hood, God, and the stars. The most thrilling moment, “Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt,” literally means “This kiss is for the whole world.” It wouldn’t really work as marks on a page, and doesn’t need to. 

A thing you notice about comics is that, as a general matter, they aren't as ambitious prose-wise as novels, or as ambitious visually as fine art. You notice an analogous pattern with music—songs that have words are, in the main, not as verbally ambitious as poetry, or as musically complex as, say, classical. 
        While wasting time on the Internet in grad school, I ran across this article from Seth Roberts, a psych-ologist with a weird brain who's bucked the academic mainstream in interesting and occasionally useful ways. The tl;dr is that he hated studying Chinese flashcards, and he hated the treadmill, but he really enjoyed doing both together. "Boring + boring = pleasant," per the title of the article.
        This is a bit of what I think is going on in hybrid art forms like comics and songwriting. Each part of the whole has to make space for the other; if you've got art as complex as Bosch duking it out with language as complex as Shakespeare 
you're going to break your reader's brain. You can do it for set pieces, and you can push limits without breaking them—Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Carla Speed McNeil all manage. But you can't sustain it. Or, at least, you can't expect your reader to. 

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Before I began to dive into music, you could say the work I was doing was poetry. As much as I loved writing it, there was nothing better than that initial moment when I created a melody to the words and sang them for the first time. It brought another level of physical and emotional power to the words. 
        I once heard someone say that when you speak it is the human voice but when you sing it is the voice of our spirit. Whether this is something that you relate to you or not, it is definitely true for me. I really believe that.  
        Music can penetrate far quicker than any other art form. Sound creates a conversation with our whole being, has the power to alter our moods, change the way we look at things, and give us clarity. So in many ways I wouldn't really call the person who does that a poet or a lyricist but actually a magician. 
        Whether people refer to my work as poetry or just lyrics, people will perceive it as they wish and I have little opinion about it. The most important element for me is whether or not it touches you or moves you. At the end of the day labels are just labels, and are, for me, in some ways meaningless. 

As a songwriter, I definitely take it as a compliment when someone refers to my lyrics as poetry. When I think “poetry” I think Shakespeare, Frost, Poe. I think of elegance and words that dance across the page to bring it to life. In a music scene dominated by pop songs that are crafted to sell rather than make you feel, it is special when a song hits that part of you that really resonates the way a well-written poem does
        One of my songwriting exercises is to write out Shakespearean sonnets line by line in hopes that it might subconsciously influence my songwriting. I do the same with bands or artists that I really look up to such as Dawes, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, or The Head and the Heart. To me, poetry and lyrics should be synonymous and I know that there are lots of artists that agree. Occasionally I will co-write with poets and have them take over the lyrics while I focus on the melody. So, yes, I do appreciate when people compare my lyrics to poetry. It is as if they are comparing it to art, and that itself is a high compliment.

Just because my work as a poet may be considered more "academic" than that of a songwriter, there is, in my opinion, certainly no difference in the "intellectual seriousness" of good poetry and good song lyrics. 
        What do I mean by “good?” I mean work that makes you reconsider something, makes you feel something, challenges you, changes you, etc. There's also art that doesn't do anything new or interesting, often because it's centered around a cliché of some sort. There is so much bad poetry out there (and bad lyrics, too), and maybe some of it comes from our culture, how we romanticize the lives of “artists” and “intellectuals.” There is also the popular idea that poetry on the page is incomprehensible to some degree, that it's "too deep" for the everyday person to under-stand. I'm not sure where this idea of inaccessibility comes from, maybe from reading the cannon (which I don't enjoy) and how it has been taught over the years. So I think "poets" who lack training and/or talent can probably impress an audience that does not include polished writers. 
        I think, also, that music can get away with a lot of cliché and still be considered great, can still win awards and top charts (bad poetry, I assure you, gets no attention from the literary world—even good poetry stays unseen for a while, or forever, often due to racism, sexism, and other isms).
        Lots of pop music, for example, is centered around love, heartbreak, etc., and it may be because that's what the audience wants; maybe we all find that compelling to some degree, but I think musical accompaniment helps—it adds something to words that may not necessarily be interesting. I’ll also say that I love pop music.

... it was the bullshit lyricists who had the catchiest hooks. With most of the music I’ve been really into in the last decade, it’s like, yeah he’s a misogynist, yeah he’s full of shit, but boy do I like how he raps, boy do I like his choice of beats. My favorite rapper right now, even though he’s not necessarily consistent, is Young Thug. Musically he’s mind-blowing to me but sometimes, listening to his lyrics, I wish I didn’t speak English. 
Saul Williams