Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Poet says lyrics aren't poetry (w/ Venn diagram)

Once upon a time, a former poet laureate said something either very stupid or very brave.

Billy Collins said, via The Wall Street Journal:
“Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,” Collins said, adding that when his students argue for the literary merit of song lyrics, “I assure them that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.”

If we’re being literal, this is balderdash. Lyrics fit the definition of a poem — an arrangement of words, written or spoken, traditionally a rhythmical compositions, sometimes rhymed, expressing experiences, ideas or emotions in a style more concentrated, imaginative and powerful than that of ordinary speech or prose. (Definition comes from Webster’s. A secondary definition says a poem is “anything suggesting a poem in its effect.” Which means, we know it when we see it.)

If Collins is saying that modern poets are trying to do something different than modern lyricists, then he may be correct. (But I think he’s being arrogant and making lazy generalizations.)

I’ve already said where I stand on the poetry-lyrics grouping. Let’s link to some smarter people.

Jenny Hendrix of The New Yorker says:
Poetry and music have a long history together, from Greek rhapsodes  to medieval troubadours. The first poems may well have been lyrics themselves. And yes, to some extent, the more we define what is poetry and what it isn’t, the more of an uncommon, niche experience it becomes.

Kristen Hoggatt of The Smart Set says:
Many song writers would argue that they are writing poetry when they write a song, while many poets are equally adamant that they are doing no such thing. Perhaps this is because songs are so popular. Lyricists simply make too much money, and attain too much validation by hearing their life’s work as someone’s mobile ringtone. Poets have to write for years, getting published by small presses that year after year become slightly less small, teach as an adjunct, teach as a faculty member, teach as a faculty member with tenure, and once they’re finally published by Poetry Magazine or The New Yorker, they’re ready to retire. Lauren Hill (sic) considers herself a poet. Eminem considers himself a poet. Both these figures have a large fan base that would confirm their poet status, but to many people who consider themselves “real” poets, these figures are just too cool, too popular to exist in the world as a bestselling musical artist and a struggling lover of words.

Slight tangent, Collins’s comment also indirectly lead me to this Venn diagram.

While I don’t agree with all of the author’s categorizations — read “We Real Cool” and tell me Gwendolyn Brooks ain’t hip-hop — I think presenting anything as a Venn diagram makes it better.

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Blogger Steve Roszczyk said...

Agree wholeheartedly. Read the lyrics from Paul Simon's "Sparrow". How could this not be poetry?

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who's traveled far and cries for rest?
"Not I," said the Oak Tree,
"I won't share my branches
with no sparrow's nest,
And my blanket of leaves won't warm
her cold breast."

Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word?
"Not I," said the swan,
"The entire idea is utterly absurd,
I'd be laughed at and scorned if the
other Swans heard."

Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow?
"Not I," said the Golden Wheat,
"I would if I could but I cannot I know,
I need all my grain to prosper and grow."

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
"I will," said the Earth,
"For all I've created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be."

October 6, 2010 at 3:32 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for this writer, he or she did not include all the information she cited from the other writers because they were, in the whole, making the case that lyrics still are not poems. Lyrics can be "poetic," but don't get that adjective confused with the noun "poem." Lyrics to songs are meant to be used along the rhythm of the music, and the style of music can totally change the emotions one feels to the lyrics. As for the Paul Simon lyric above, once again, they are poetic, but that doesn't make them a poem. Give me the music so I can totally understand and engage what is intended with the words.

July 8, 2014 at 5:23 PM 

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