Music to a Poet’s Ear


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A couple of weeks ago, Billy Collins was quoted in The Wall Street Journal opining the merit of music lyrics to that of poems: “‘Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,’ says Billy Collins, professor and former poet laureate. When his students argue that the lines by their favorite rock stars should be assessed as literature, he demurs: ‘I assure them that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.’”  This struck me not because I necessarily disagree — indeed many people who consider themselves serious poets would agree with those words — but because only Billy Collins, arguably the most popular poet in the U.S., could get away with saying them in a publication that is not geared specifically to poets. They surprised me, coming from him, because Collins has been repeatedly praised for accessibility and an ability to relate to everyday people — for many, he himself can be considered a gateway into poetry, yet here he is pushing poetry to the elite fringe. Shouldn’t someone at the forefront of the poetry movement try to discourage the misconception that poetry is highbrow? Poetry kicks ass, and if I were Billy Collins, I would do everything in my power to convince others that it does, using the most powerful verses to get my point across, which naturally include — come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses — song lyrics. At least I can get away with saying this:  Billy Collins, you have made a grave mistake. The poetry muses should string you up and throw pointy paper quills at you.

The truth is that lyrics are often the most pervasive way to bring words to a person’s attention. Walk into a restaurant or a clothing store, and likely you will hear lyrics playing in the background. Attend a sports event and lyrics will likely be sounded from the loudspeaker during half time. This is reality — yes, it’s a far cry from hearing Keat’s odes sounded from somebody’s car audio system, but it is far more helpful to focus on the similarities between lyrics and poetry than to polarize the two genres. After all, songs and poems were at one time the same thing. How can one not notice the poetry of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”?

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed
In the wells of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.
And whispered in the sounds of silence.

While words are often the garnish for the melody in songs, in this case it seems that the opposite is true:  The melody is simply garnish for the words (I am biased, of course, as a verbal thinker and not a musical one). Speaking of the song, Paul Simon said in an interview with Terry Gross, “My thinking is that if you don’t have the right melody, it really doesn’t matter what you have to say, people don’t hear it. They only are available to hear when the sound entrances and makes people open to the thought.” For Simon, what he has to say (the words — or dare I say, the poetry) is important, so important that the melody is secondary and acts in service of the words. What could hurt the song when assessed as a poem is the overbearing end rhyme, but this is just one of the ways that the two arts have evolved. After the advent of writing and books, songs were increasingly brought into the public sphere as they were sung aloud, embracing end rhyme and repetition to aid memorization. Poems, read in books, were more often in the private sphere and could afford to be more subtle. As a result, today many lyrics read like nursery rhymes, whereas poems read like serious literature.

For example, celebrated folk artist and song writer Joni Mitchell, whose book The Complete Lyrics and Poems of Joni Mitchell has sold more copies than most contemporary books of poetry, cannot escape the sing-song tone of her words on the page:

Rows and flows of angel hair,
and ice cream castles in the air,
and feathered canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way,
but now they only block the sun.
They rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done,
but clouds got in my way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow,
it’s clouds illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds…at all.

As a poem, the end rhyme is predictable and the repetition in the entire lyric is a bit excessive, but the words to this song have the thoughtful organization of good poetry. Most important of all, both lyrics and poetry are composed of language, one of the true wonders of human development. Lyrics and poems are linked in the way all genres of the written word are, the beauty of language and artistic expression leveling disparity — both lyrics and poetry are literary arts with equal merit. Though naturally I’m biased to say that poems are superior, doing so would only harm the mission to bring poetry into the mainstream. Rather, one should focus on how song lyrics can be a gateway into poetry by making words the focal point, and as such, a person can then realize how powerful words can be by themselves.

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 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. A couple of years ago, however, a familiar name graced the esteemed pages of The New Yorker’s poetry section:


death silenced her pool
the day she died
hovered over
her little toy dogs
but left no trace
of itself
at her

(Bob Dylan)

If The New Yorker, which has long been American society’s culture barometer, recognizes Bob Dylan as a poet, might other songwriters be eligible for the same title?

Years ago, taking my first ever poetry workshop in college, I was assigned to write an essay about the three poets who have influenced and inspired me. I didn’t even have to think about it; I knew off the bat who those three poets were:  Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Ani DiFranco. I can imagine now how my teaching assistant might have rolled her eyes at my inclusion of the last, but Ani DiFranco was a poet to me. She was the first musical artist whose words appealed to me more than her melody did — and naturally so. I was barely 20, recovering from the various wounds young girls of our age must recover from, and DiFranco’s words—sometimes belligerent, sometimes consoling — made sense of my experience. I quote from memory:

I do it for the joy it brings
Because I’m a joyful girl
Because the world owes us nothing
But we owe each other the world

Is that poetry? I can’t separate in my mind those words from the melody, so maybe Billy Collins is right. Personally, I don’t care. It seems to me that if those at the forefront of the poetry movement continue to use their power to push poetry out of the mainstream, they will get precisely what they’re asking for:  poetry will continue to be regarded as obscure, academic, and out of touch with the allegorical Everyman, undermining the efforts of columns like mine, slam artists, and every elementary school teacher who attempts to get their kids hooked on poetry. And that’s a mistake nobody can afford to make. • 3 September 2010