Song Lyrics, Poetry or Not?

Floating around the “poetosphere” I’m noticing a good deal of debate about the validity of song lyric, especially popular song lyric, and rap in particular, as poetry.

In my not-so humble opinion the debate – though well intentioned – often hits stupid levels, this is less the fault of the people on either side debating, and more the fault of our language itself.

The debate reflects a massive ambiguity, in meaning, in the terms being used: lyric, poetry and verse. This ambiguity, in our language, at this point of time, really is the problem. Also a forgetting of historical origins.

There is also the aspect of an elite literary culture forgetting the category of folk poetry, forgetting orality in favor of the literary.

To me, the Doors are poetic, Poor Righteous Teachers are poetic, Gangstar are poetic, Iron Maiden are poetic, Massive Attack are poetic, Ani DeFranco is poetic, Tracy Chapman is poetic, Henry Rollins era Black Flag is poetic.
Bathory, for gods sake, are poetic – whether I enjoy Bathory’s aesthetic or not is another matter.

None of this is to say that I necessarily like, or do not like, the poetry in the lyrics in question. It’s to point out what I see as a fact.

Poetry is more structure and format, it’s possible to have non poetic verse, of course, and in our language the overlapping between “verse” and “poetry” is nebulous. The issue does need to be thought out more and given a more just treatment than I’m doing here, but this post’s point is to put some ideas on the table.

A good deal of poetry is rather bad, frankly sucks monkey balls, yet we admit it’s poetry all the same.

Originally poetry was essentially song lyrics.

Even the word song-lyric betrays it’s poetic origin, it’s derivation from lyrical poetry. Or calling the portions of a song’s lyrics verses. Again, to all but the most obtuse this points out the poetic origins of the song lyric.

From the Greeks, to Arabs, to Anglo Saxons poetic speech was speech subject to a formal prosody (and in some cases rhymed, or alliterated, or not) and recited or sung to music. Contemporary song lyrics are subject to what one could see as a weak, arguably degenerative type of prosody, or one could see it as an informal though flexible prosody subject to the needs of the specific modes of music at hand – just as the case with Germanic Strong Stress prosody, Greek Meter, and Arabic Arud meter.

Early popular song, from blues to jazz to 19th century popular song, all betrays a specific type of prosody. And such songs are far more rigid in their rhyme schemes than much of contemporary poetry or song-lyric.

The argument is not whether contemporary song lyrics are good poetry – by and large they are not, and are rather awful. The point is that they are a mode of popular, non literary, non hieratic, poetry. So are, for that matter, insipid and idiotic advertising jingles. Very little distance separates a bathroom cleaning jingle from a greeting card verse – both are often examples of insipid bad poetry, the difference in the later is some measure of sincerity and lyrical intent.

Among the Arabs see Ibn Khaldun’s comments on the origins of Arab poetry, among the world’s most formal in the fullness of their tradition, in music.
See also al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani, (Book of Song singers) the most prolix discussion of early Arabic Song, it explicitly assumes a natural continuum between formal poetry and song.

The role of the Greek Rhapsode has already been mentioned on, any classicist can go on, and on, on the links between music and verse in early Greek culture

Also well known the lyre accompaniment to Anglo-Saxon and Germanic Skaldic verse. Early Irish poetry also was explicitly accompanied by music.

The only difference I can see between popular song, and poetry, is that in popular song the lyrics take a backseat to the music itself, beat and melody; in formal poetry as we are used to considering the poem itself, the words and their arrangement and meanings.
It’s likely both simply form a continuum and what we recognize as poetry is essentially a higher register of song – very good songs, well written and well structured, use the same sort of linguistic devices that good poetry does, some popular songs are in form and structure indistinguishable from a standard English ballad meter poem – for example – and borrow from the same tropes and devices that standard formal verse does.

In a culture in which orality predominates over textuality this debate would be largely meaningless – I suspect. In our culture, in which textuality predominated over orality the higher register of song, poetry, stands on its own, and its origins – song itself – is seen by us as another genre of writing itself, but it is not.

Again – calling something poetry does not imply it is good – poetry, it could be bad poetry or good poetry. Perhaps it is better to speak of verse. Song lyrics clearly are versified, subject to some sort of prosody whether competently, or not, weakly, or strongly. They employ some sort of rhyme scheme, and loosely follow some strong stress type of prosody, are based on line strictures – stichic, in other words.

Popular song lyrics, from Rap, to country, to singer-songwriter lyricism, to heavy metal, to whatever genre, is poetry – whether it’s GOOD poetry or not is an aesthetic argument – but that it’s formally some sort of poetry, on a popular level in any case, is undeniable.

Face it, what are ballads? The 17th century English ballads played a similar role that popular song lyrics play in our culture now.

Contemporary song lyrics for teenagers fill a similar role in inspiring, passing on folk knowledge, etc., as formal poetry once did – whether it’s a loss to the culture or not, I’ll leave as a debate for others, but today’s songwriters and rappers are the minstrels and troubadours of yore.

What they write and sing is poetry – whether its good or bad poetry again is a debate for others. To me, denying it’s poetry seems pedantic, and almost disingenuous.

2 Comment

  1. How could anyone argue that lyrics AREN’T poetry? To me it seems a cut-and-dry case of untalented envy toward the talented. Middle-aged mediocre community college teachers write shitty poetry and debase the true poets of our age. Also, shout at those damn kids to stop playing on their lawns.

  2. I agree, I mean even the name “lyrics” speaks volumes. How can you call something a lyric or verse and not have it be poetry?
    “Blasted kids, keep throwin’ their softball at my car….”

    Seriously, there is a sort of over-studied mediocrity that’s sometimes found in academic poetic circles. There’s mediocre popular song lyrics too, but there are also song writers who are far more deeply “poetic” than a lot of stuff printed by the Poetry Foundation, or recited by Garrison Kealler on the radio….

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