Sunday 2 September 2007

Poetry and songwriting are different. Duh.

Bob Dylan (shown while still somewhat coherent) is a great songwriter, but he's no poet, says Sam Leith. I wholeheartedly agree! Students who want to write their poetry papers on their favourite songwriters are the bane of my existence! This story is from the Telegraph:

As a lover of poetry, I always feel a deep gloom sinking on to me at the approach of National Poetry Day. Oh god, I think. There's going to be a lot of press releases. There's going to be an attempt to make poetry relevant and fun, by making it less like poetry. There's going to be… oh god.

This year, it's Bob Dylan. Children at key stages three and four English are going to be instructed to study the great man's work with the aid of a special "Dylan Education Pack", issued in honour of National Poetry Day.

In my mind and the minds of most people who give serious attention to his work as a lyricist, Dylan is a genius. But he's a songwriter, not a poet. It doesn't elevate his work to call it poetry any more than it elevates an apple to call it an orange; nor does it give you a useful way of thinking about it academically.

Some rock and pop lyrics, Dylan's among them, work as poetry - live differently, but also well, on the page. You'd expect that. Poetry and song - as the two main rhythmic uses of language - have the same origins and much in common.

But that's not to say they're the same thing. We share an ancestor with the chimpanzee, and we both like bananas, but we're not the same creature.

Sorry, kids. It needed to be said. Read the whole story here.


Zachariah Wells said...

This argument's a total nonstarter, Pauly. If Dylan's (or Waits', or Downie's, or XYZ's) song lyrics are more poetic than most of the stuff stamped with the label in their CIP data, why cavil? I call some of my poems songs, just no one's ever set 'em to music. If they did, would they stop being poems? I dunno, it all starts to seem like territorial pissing (which happens to be the title of a Nirvana song).

Paul Vermeersch said...

Oh Zach, no.

Writing words to acompany music is a different animal, just as writing ad copy is a different animal, or what have you. No one's saying one's better than t'other, just different is all.

Zachariah Wells said...

A different animal in the way a Greyhound's different from a Great Dane. But they're both dawgs. And some dogs are mongrels, eh. And some are real sons o' bitches. Others are mangy and should be put down. Others are neutered and servile. Some are feral. Some are wolves and coyotes and drink warm blood by moonlight. Some sit in your lap and stick their snouts in your nuts. Some hump your leg. Some eat their own shit. They're all different, but they're all members of poochdom, even if I look at my mother-in-law's Shitsu/Poodle (a Shittypoo?) and think: "You call that a dog? That's not a dog."

Zachariah Wells said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Vermeersch said...

My point exactly.

Zachariah Wells said...


Robert Earl Stewart said...

David Berman does both very well, but distinctly. See his collection Actual Air and any Silver Jews album. Robert Burns also wrote some wonderful lyrics, though not widely known as a rocker.

Anonymous said...

David Berman does do both very well, and the whole point of him doing both is that his poems would make for shitty songs and his songs would make for shitty poems. These are very different processes, which Berman attests to.

I hear that some poets write novels, too... And hey, some novels, like some songs, are "poetic." This doesn't make them poems.

Being "poetic" is very different from being a poem, like like writing "musical" language sure ain't music.

Why, Mr. Wells, do you call some of your poems "songs" if they're poems? You're not confident enough in them to call a poem a poem? If they really are songs, I hope for your sake your editor isn't letting you publish them.

Not all songs need music, I suppose, but they do need melody, and no self-respecting songwriter would slap some lyrics stripped of melody down on a page and call it a finished piece of art. In fact most would find this extremely embarrassing.

The point of liner notes, by the way, is that they come with the music... It's bad enough that some jerk-off egomaniac songwriters delicately format their all-important lyrics in verse in their liner notes, but I think if one to were actually start labelling their songs as "poems", you as a poet should be rightfully offended, or would be able to offer a very authoritative opinion that these poems suck.

It may be possible that some Dylan or Waits songs might hold together as poems, but I doubt they'd make for very good ones (I'm a huge fan of both, by the way). It is also possible to tear pages out of The English Patient.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Come now, if you wish to play, at least identify yourself.

Zachariah Wells said...

It's a bootless battle to get the multitudinous anonymi of the internets to identify themselves, Pauly.

Listen, there's a long, long, long, history of association between poetry and song and I am hardly the first dude to call one or more of his poems a song. And presenting song lyrics as verse isn't pretentious; song lyrics are verse. And so are most poems. They are clearly more closely related, in a generic sense, than a poem and a novel. Did EE Cummings' sonnet (from the Italian "sonnetto", small song) stop being a poem when Bjork set it to music. Was it a half-assed song until then?

Here's a point: Gord Downie's song lyrics, by and large, make better poems than the poems in his book. I find them richer and denser and more rhythmically persuasive. This isn't a simple case of Downie being a better songwriter than a poet. It's a case of him writing one sort of poem better than another.

I'm not saying that all songs are poems or that all poems are songs. That'd be stupid. I'm saying that there's a great deal of overlap. Bad poets could stand to learn a great deal from good songwriters. And bad songwriters could learn a great deal from good poets. Saying "they're different and that's that" is denying the possibility for positive cross-pollination and I see no reason to do that.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And all I'm saying that poems and song lyrics, as they have evolved to the present day, are different things. Sure they are similar. Sure they overlap. Sure they share common origins. So do Homo Sapiens and Homo Neaderthalis, but they are different. In order for two things to overlap, they can't be the same one thing. And furthermore, I am saying, when I give an assignment based on a poem of the student's choice, I do NOT want my student to write about anything by Christina Aguilera.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yeah, but if I were you, I wouldn't want anything by Rod McKuen either! Or how about that classic "poem" "Footprints"?

Your argument cuts both ways. Two things that overlap aren't completely different. Look at the very terminology here: lyric, canto, sonnet, ballad. What about the songs in Shakespeare plays? What about Campion?

Things that overlap also aren't completely distinct from each other. The evolutionary argument isn't convincing to me because we're talking about a moment in evolutionary time here, which makes my dog analogy way closer to the truth. Dogs and wolves can still fuck and make viable, fertile puppies. (Not only that, but the puppies are probably going to be more vigorously healthful and more mentally balanced than, say, your average purebred Doberman.) Neanderthal Man is an extinct species. There's a faint whiff of teleology in your argument, Pauly, which any atheist should be suspicious of.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Yes, Zach, but they are still different.

Zachariah Wells said...

Sez you. Objectively, they're not. Words written in lines, which sometimes rhyme and sometimes don't. It's all verse (oh, look, another common term!)--which makes your argument--wait for it--perverse.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Yes, you could argue that it is all verse, but not all verse is poetry, which brings us back to my original point.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yeah, and my point is that the non-poetry factor is not necessarily that it's a song. There's lots n lots n lots o verse that isn't poetry. Some of this is song lyrics. So what? This isn't a generic distinction, it's a qualitative one. Which was my point. Good writing, regardless of genre or sub-genre, is poetry. Bad or mediocre writing ain't. You can't argue on the one hand that there's a generic difference and on the other that you're talking about quality of writing.

Molly Laatsch said...

I'm assuming that any of you who believe that Dylan isn't a poet have never read Tarantula. It's a brilliant work of prose and poetry and little quips. Maybe you guys should check it out before you discredit his artistic abilities.
He also said once in an interview that he typically begins writing a song with the words, then he sets music to the words. I'm pretty sure that's poetry, even if it is later worked over to fit into a certain rhythm, which I believe in poetry is known as a meter.
Get off your high horses and quit being so jealous that you aren't half the genius that Dylan is.