Friday, September 14, 2007

Lyrics and poetry, not to mention Dylan

Bob Dylan's been undergoing something of a renaissance. More power to him. He made #1 on the charts about a year ago, the oldest person ever to do so; he's been on tour more or less continuously for over 15 years; he's been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature; he keeps writing new songs in new styles, despite ongoing efforts to pin him down by issuing "retrospectives". I ask you, shouldn't they wait until after he's dead?

But the part of all this that interests me in terms of poetics is, there's been some debate about whether Dylan is a poet, or a writer of song lyrics. See a point of view here and another one here .

The distinction is both arbitrary and ahistorical, and arguably not all that useful. Much of what we now think of as poetry was originally written (or composed-- a great deal of this history applies to primarily oral cultures) to be sung, or otherwise performed to musical accompaniment. This includes much classical Greek poetry, the troubadour traditions of southern Europe, and the bardic and skaldic traditions of northern Europe. (The last two named are the main ancestors of poetry in English.)

But there is a pretty strong separation now, based on the following fact: Most poets expect that their work will be encountered primarily by readers rather than listeners. Most songwriters expect the reverse. Dylan is one of the few who straddles that divide, along with Leonard Cohen (to whom he's often compared).

This has created something of a marketing divide as well. Journals of poetry (self-described) don't generally publish song lyrics. I'm not aware of any journals devoted specifically to song lyrics (I mean paper journals; there are any number of lyric search websites out there). If songwriters want to get their lyrics on paper, they pretty much have to print them on the liner notes. Cohen's exceptional in that some of his poetry anthologies contain a fair handful of his song lyrics. An anthology I have by Richard Wilbur also contains some song lyrics, but inexplicably they're relegated to an appendix at the back of the book.

The message is clear: we're supposed to regard poetry and song as completely different products; we can't even shop for them in the same store.

This brings me to the subject of lyric poetry. I have been trying to figure out for some time what "lyric poetry" means. "Lyric" comes from "lyre": to the classical Greeks, lyric poetry meant specifically poetry to be accompanied by the lyre. The Greeks were very specific about this sort of thing. Elegies, for instance, were meant to be accompanied by flute: we might consider them songs, but it wouldn't be correct to refer to them as lyric or lyrical. Of course, in common English one refers to the words of any song as "lyrics", though very few people play actual lyres any more.

But the key point of the Greek definition is that lyric poetry was meant to be sung. As such, it was metered. According to Wikipedia, this definition got carried into the European Middle Ages: "Lyric in European literature of the medieval or Renaissance period means simply a poem which has been written to be set to music. A poem's particular structure, function or theme is not specified by the term." Wiki's entry follows the development of lyric poetry in the European and English-speaking world up to the present, and also looks at parallel developments in other cultures.

What does "lyric poetry" mean these days? comes up with the following:

Main Entry: lyric poetry
Part of Speech: n
Definition: a type of emotional songlike poetry, distinguished from dramatic and narrative poetry
Etymology: Greek lurikos 'for the lyre', from verses sung to a lyre
Webster's New Millennium™ Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.7)
Copyright © 2003-2007 Lexico Publishing Group, LLC

so Webster's sticking pretty close to the classical definition. The only thing that seems new is the "emotional" part. Meanwhile Wiki says of twentieth-century lyric poetry: "Lyric poetry dealing with relationships, sex and domestic life constituted the new mainstream of American poetry in the late twentieth century."

Somehow, lyric poetry has acquired a connotation of being about emotions, relationships, sex and domestic life. Has it retained the connection to song and music, other than as an etymological ghost? Depends whom you ask.

Webster says lyric poetry is "songlike", Wiki's description stresses rhyme and meter. One of my favorite journals, The Lyric, describes itself as "the oldest magazine in North America in continuous publication devoted to traditional poetry." It prints mostly, though not exclusively, formal poetry-- rhymed and metered, and at least theoretically capable of being performed to music. (Though probably most of the poems printed in The Lyric weren't written with any such intention.) Lyric Poetry Review, on the other hand, claims "We seek poetry with true singing power distinguished by musicality and lyricism." Formal poetry is a virtual stranger to this journal's pages. At Suite 101, we find the following statement: "Most poetry as we think of it is lyric poetry." This article goes on to define lyric poetry as being pretty much synonymous with formal poetry, and states explicitly that lyric poetry includes songs. (It also makes the claim that lyric poetry's identification with personal, emotional poetry is ancient, based on the fact that a lyric poet usually performed solo, accompanying her/himself on the lyre. I don't agree that a solo performance is necessarily about the performer, though.)

What can one make of all this? Clearly the market decision that poetry and song are to be kept separate has not achieved the status of a consensus. For this we should all be grateful. I'll leave the last few words to Bob Dylan, out there crossing lines for, good Lord, more than forty years now.

Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet? Dylan was asked that very question at a press conference in 1965, when he famously said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."

"Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."

--quoted at

1 comment:

TheTruthIsObscure said...


thank you for your inspiring and intteresting thought.

Songwriting (or popular music in general) was one of the most successful and influential arts of the 20th century. But the folks at the universities always had problems with this genre. One reason is that the guys from the literature department usually don't know anything about music and their colleagues from the music department aren't that familar with lyric writing. So they prefer to see songs in the categories they know: you like Bob Dylan, call it "poetry", you like Gershwin & Arlen, call it "art song", you like Blues or Country, call it "Folk music" (another acceptable category, thanks to old Herder). So it's possible to give this kind of music academic respectability. Not at least "poet" (or "composer" or "Folk singer") still sounds better than "songwriter" to many ears. Interestingly German language doesn't even have an acceptable term for this profession. We only have "Dichter" (poets) and "Komponisten" (composer).

A while ago I bought myself an anthology called "American Poetry, The Twentieth Century, Vol. 1: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker" (published by the Library Of America). The editors have included some song lyrics by W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Irving Berlin & Cole Porter. These lyrics work quite well in this context (and at least Porter is more fun than most of the other "real" poets) although none of these folks have ever called themselves a poet or has claimed to have written poetry.

The Library Of America has published as part of their "American Poets Project" also a fine collection of Cole Porter song lyrics and they look quite good on page. So I presume Porter has now found his way to the pantheon of American poets. And it should not be forgotten that this kind of songwriting (Porter, Gershwin, Hart, Berlin, Harburg et al.) grew out of the so-called light verse tradition. The Oxford Book Of American Light Verse (1979) includes of course lyrics by these songwriters. So their works can of be defined as "poetry".

But I can honestly say that I'm not that much interested if these guys (or modern songwriters like Dylan or Cohen et al.) are called poets as long as the songs are good. Songs like Berlin's "What'll I Do", Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", Dylan's "Simple Twist Of Fate" or Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" have touched me more than most 20th century poetry. So I really don't care if somebody calls it poetry or not.