Monday, March 30, 2009

Poetry of lyrics

I'm not much of a poetry fan or poet, but there's a charm to reading poems every once in a while. Literature seems, somehow, to include poetry in it. The Guardian writes about poems about as often as it writes about novels. Some poems are actually books (I'm looking at you, Homer), long epics that tell a story in rhymes (often lost in translation). And don't get me started on the poetry translation theory. But as I was rereading my favorite Shakespeare sonnet the other day, I was struck by the opening line which was what had made it my favorite in the first place:
Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Right. So not remarkable on its own, but something there is interesting. A poem (a sonnet, no less) starts out with reference to something very closely related to poetry: music. These days, poetry publications are fairly rare. People made a big deal of someone reading a poem at the presidential inauguration. There isn't much of a culture for poetry. It's not really taught in school, and if it is, it's done in a very boring way. And yet poetry is not dead. Sylvia Plath, poet and novelist, is still famous. And not simply for the incredible "The Bell Jar", but also (mostly) for her poetry. Indeed, even her early poetry is enough to make readers sit back and shiver a little:

The mindless April leaves heave sighs
And twirl in aimless sarabandes.
My fingers curl and clutch the sky;
Green blood flows in green-veined hands.

This is a snippet but it leaves an impression. Either I'm woefully uninformed (also an ominous sign) or the standard form of poetry is going out of style. Exit Shelley (Percy, beautiful poems), enter music. Lyrics, to be more precise. The last few years have seen a rise in story-like songs, songs with impressive word choices and clever games. As music styles themselves develop, so do the lyrics that accompany them. Some bands tell stories clearly with nothing particularly complex. Others choose to literally put poetry to music. I can think of many songs with very special lyrics. An example:
To dress up your wounds
Wash off the salt
Freshen the blooms
At your sea-rusted altar
While simple, this chorus from "Fire Snakes" (Laura Veirs) has an underlying poetic feel to it. Most of her songs do. This is just one example for this kind of music-driven poetry. And it seems English teachers are catching on. So while there are hundreds of poem-songs out there, some better than others (apologies to all the great lyrics that couldn't fit in this post today; the draw was entirely random), it's interesting to see the not-so-stark comparisons between these "poems" and Shakespeare, who instead wondered why we listen to music sadly. Anyone with specific poetic songs are welcome to leave bring them up.

And let's not forget: Croatian, Hebrew, and Slovenian all use the same word to mean both "song" and "poem".


  1. You're absolutely right. We pay too little attention to poetry, which can spark emotion and paint vivid scenes -- all in a few lines. I'm as guilty as anyone, and I realized it last night, when I went to a reading by Richard Wilbur, who has won two Pulitzers and is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. At 88, he's still going strong and drew more than 200 people to a college campus. So maybe there's hope after all.

  2. Poetry does get too little attention, but it seems that it continues to thrive in an underground sort of way, through chapbooks and independent presses. I am also guilty of not following/supporting poetry; I tend to read old favorites. As for the song/poetry connection: well, always Bob Dylan, and these days Neko Case.


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