A few days ago, someone who writes both print poems and songs told me that words written to go with music are not poetry, cannot possibly be poetry. This very serious assertion resonated with me for a couple of reasons, one personal and professional and one more to do with the literary academic and writing professions in Canada.
As a poet, my work has for almost a half-century been rooted in the same rich soil as popular music of all genres. While I have certainly studied the great print poets and traditional poetic forms, I have also looked carefully at song lyrics both while writing reviews of recordings and more formally. Besides great poets like Earle Birney, William Blake, John Donne, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Dan Hill, and many others, my influences include Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Carole King, Malvina Reynolds, and others who write beautiful, poetic lyrics. It was a surprise and even a shock to have this young writer assert that I’ve been doing it all wrong for almost fifty years.
In a way, it wasn’t a surprise after all. There is a snobbery and elitism that pervades the Canadian literary establishment, literary publishing circles, and certain circles of writers. To say that song lyrics cannot possibly be poetic reflects the same willful blindness that decries any prose writing that even hints at being genre fiction. There is a need for some in our industry to be somehow better than and above the rest of us. It’s easy enough to look down your nose and sniff at any writing which might read easily and be popular with the masses, especially if it helps you to feel superior. Throughout my career as a writer, I’ve observed this attitude of false superiority come from the self-imposed ghettos of literary academe.
A couple of days after this original remark had been made to me, I was talking to another writing professor who happened to mention that Norton has included the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen in its anthologies of poetry. I remembered that other Norton anthologies have included work by Joni Mitchell, Rod McKuen, Leonard Cohen, and many other songwriters. This reinforced something I already knew. Publishers of literature textbooks are including song lyrics among the poetry they select. It’s clear that they do believe that song lyrics can be poetic.
Besides some pretty obvious elitism, what’s responsible for this schism among writers, academics and critics? I believe there are two likely sources for this divergence of views: differing knowledge and understandings of the history of poetry and differing philosophies of what constitutes art in general and poetry in specific. It’s hard not to fall on one side or the other.
Let’s talk about me. I’m a self-taught poet. I dropped out of high school and studied poetry on my own, reading a wide variety of books on style and form and seeking out books and poems by great poets ancient and modern. Some fifteen years later, I added to my already substantial knowledge by taking some academic university literature courses. I was fortunate to take my masters degree at a university that exhibits none of those elitist attitudes found at some other schools.
I’m in a very long tradition of poetry that stretches to way before the printing press or even writing by anyone but the priesthood. In those ancient times, the spoken word and song was the way to spread the latest news, provide popular entertainment, and in general communicate with the man or woman on the street. This was not the exclusive literature of the elite but television without technology. If it was spoken word it was also theatre, and more of it was poetry than not. I believe many poets and even academics simply don’t understand this tradition. Indeed it’s possible they’re not even aware of it.
When I was a beginning poet in western Canada, I noticed a trend. For their inspiration, the new Canadian poets were looking back four or five decades for their inspiration, primarily to a few American schools of poetry (such as Black Mountain) and specific poets such as William Carlos Williams. Some might have looked back as far as Walt Whitman. I find many younger poets, including some with impressive publishing records, are similarly narrow and short-term in their knowledge of poetry’s history and variation.
Meanwhile, I looked further back, at the wonderful Canadian poets of the 19th Century, at American poets of that period and the early 20th Century, At poets further back such as John Clare, William Blake, John Donne. Many of the poets I studied and by whom I was influenced were very political, speaking out on streetcorners and publishing in popular newspapers and on broadsheet posters. For example, William Blake was a good friend of the American poet and revolutionary Thomas Paine and Carl Sandberg’s writing was very political and populist. For these and other reasons, I’ve increasingly seen myself as a poet not of academe but of the people: a street poet.
Like those who came before me, I write all my poems to be performed, to be read or sung. That they also work well on the page is just an added benefit. My inspiration comes from poets like William Blake, who included illustrations and melodies with his words, Francis Quarles, who created emblemes which included words as well as images and melodies, the Beat poets , who spoke theirt words more often that not and often with live music, Amiri Baraka, who was especially instrumental in bringing together poetry and jazz, and many others whose philosophy included performance and music as well as words. My influences also included popular music of the 20th Century – especially rock and roll, country, and rhythm and blues – which often included spoken passages, sometimes for an entire song, and which told stories of real life and of protest in poetic form.
I do agree that some song lyrics are not that poetic, but then neither are some poems in books. There is a difference between verse narrative and doggerel, between a piece that is exceptionally well-written and a piece that is not so well-written. However, that has nothing to do with the form or style of the poem or even the philosophy behind it. It has nothing to do with whether the piece was written for a book or a song. It has only do with the quality of the writing.
I think it’s unfortunate that some, especially some poets, discount lyrics written for music as not being poetry. Even the term comes from the lyric poetry of the 18th and 19th Centuries. In their limited knowledge of the history and roots of poetry and narrow acceptance of the many streams and philosophies of poetic expression, they are losing something valuable that has been part of world culture for millennia. What disappoints me most though is that some would exclude and discount whole fields of expression just to feel superior to others. I prefer to accept and value it all.