Stop Comparing Lyrics To Poetry: You're Selling Them Both Short
    • FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 03, 2017

    • Posted by: Jack Labbe

    One of the biggest cliches in music is calling your favorite songwriter a poet. So many great songwriters have been given this label in the past, but is it fair to make this association? It's become commonplace in our society to label any arrangement of words as being poetic, ie. retaining beauty in its expression, but why is it that poetry is the end all be all? Barack Obama is an incredible public speaker. He has the ability to inspire and command the attention of the world, his phrasing and the words he used are beautiful, but was he a "poet"? No. He was a politician, and a very good one at that. Both professions require you to communicate an idea, as well as persuade an audience, however they approach their craft in different ways and for different reasons. If Barack Obama went on television and read a poem about the Iran Nuclear Deal it would have been confusing and gave us more questions than answers. Same way that a poet would never write legislation or a speech about the Iran Deal. This is the same for songwriters, who have different tools and limitations that come along with their form. No one profession is better than the other and for this reason we need to stop comparing them.

    I was having a meeting with a poetry professor at school when the concept of "Songs Vs. Poetry" first came up. I had shared with him that I took his class to help me with my understanding of lyrics. I wanted to get a better understanding of poetic devices, which I did, but in that meeting he shared with me his opinion on the difference. He said that he was sorely disappointed when he purchased an anthology of poetry that included Leonard Cohen. Leonard was one of his favorite songwriters, and he had heard that he also wrote poetry. Upon reading the anthology, he discovered that what was advertised as "poems" were just printed out lyrics to some of Leonard Cohen's most popular songs. This sparked an interesting debate as to wether lyrics written on a page are poetry.

    One definition of poetry I've heard is sound written out over a line. The characteristic that physically separates prose (ie. books, essays, this article) from poetry is the use of line breaks. A poet can control the cadence you have while reading by separating one sentence from another. Prose is read horizontally, or left to right, whereas poetry's stanza format forces you to read vertically, or down the page. Of course like any rule, this format is broken by experimental poets, but for the most part this is the norm in the poetry world. For this reason poetry is reliant on being on a page, so the reader knows how to read it. Lyrics however rely on being set to a beat and a melody. So when you read the lyrics of Leonard Cohen off a page, they lacked the power and resonance they have when they are performed. It's like saying a black and white photo of a Jackson Pollock is the same as seeing it in person. When you strip away the melody, the beat, and the singer's voice you are left with very little.

    When you write songs, you quickly learn that you can't just say whatever you want. Some words don't sing well, you've got to have at least a minimal rhyme scheme, and syllable count is key. On top of all of that, you also have to write a melody that is attractive enough where people will want to listen to you even if they aren't listening to your words. Oh and while you're at it, try to keep it under 5 minutes. These are some of the restrictions of songwriting that aren't present in poetry or prose. Modern poetry has all but abandoned the need for a rhyme scheme and given the poet free range over their vocabulary and rhythm. For this reason poets have a lot more control over the what they are saying, as well as the images that they create. Songwriters often get away with sloppy rhymes, cliches, and cookie cutter narratives because of their melodies. Poets can't get away with that. They can't hide behind an 808 or beautiful string section. Poetry is not easier, nor is it harder than songwriting, they are just two different art forms that use the same materials. Paintings are usually made on a piece of canvas, but that doesn't mean the designer who made your canvas pants, is a painter.

    This debate came up recently when Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The world was divided between those who believed that Dylan's literary merit wasn't up to snuff and those who thought that this was a win for songwriting as it was finally "taken seriously." In his speech to the Nobel committee, Dylan made the analogy that Shakespeare probably was too focused on putting on a good performance of his plays, which were required to be read by actors and staged, that it probably never occurred to him to wonder if his plays would be considered literature. If you really intend on understanding the majesty that is Shakespeare's plays, you have to see them performed. He went on to say that he felt the same way about the award. He never thought he would have been awarded a prize for literature because he'd never thought of his songs as literature. And why should he? Calling something "literature" is not the same as calling it "art."

    Literature is a title given to printed media that is intended to be read off a page. This title should not be considered superior and only given to the really good songwriters, which is what the Nobel Prize committee did. They decided they had the power to grant a songwriter the "honorable distinction" of being considered "literature." Why can't his work just be considered great music? Songs are not intended to be read, you didn't see Beyonce on the New York Times Bestseller List for Lemonade because the CD came with a lyric sheet. If anything he deserved a peace prize for the impact his songs had on the world.

    Overall, the biggest problem with people who call songwriters poets, is that in doing so you elevate the worth of a poet over the worth of a songwriter. Basically you're saying that only certain songwriters are good enough to be considered "poets." This is a very elitist view. Why should we only carry our poets, and not our songwriters in such high significance? Of course, there are plenty of examples of poems being put to music. In doing so, you're adding melody and rhythm. But when you read lyrics as poetry, or a play as a book, all you're doing is subtracting from the initial product. Let's start taking lyrics seriously, the same way that plays are taken seriously and studied, the same way that Bob Dylan and so many great songwriters have taken their lyrics, so that we don't have to make these destructive comparisons anymore.
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