Where The Lines Overlap - A Brief Consideration Of Poetry And Music

Main Image - Songwriter Bob Dylan with poet Allen Ginsberg at the grave of Jack Kerouac, 1975

Ever since the first lines of poetry were first recited by ancient civilizations as early as 2500 B.C, the art form has long since coalesced with that of music. Infused with rhythm, rhyme, and metre, the musical qualities of poetry were particularly prevalent during the early stages of the literary branch, diminished somewhat with the looser approaches to content and form over the last one-hundred years. Though two distinctly different fields, there is certainly an overlap to be considered, if only to stoke a personal curiosity in the process.

“Music is the emotional life of most people” - Leonard Cohen

So what is poetry? What is music? By seeking definition does it become clearer as to how the two relate? If we treat poetry as "literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm" and music as "vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion" then we note similarities. In both definitions, we find an emphasis on the portrayal of emotion, which becomes a chief aspect of both poetry and music. In music we find this emotion condensed into lyrics, vocal delivery, production or instrumentation. In poetry, it exists in the words and in the spaces between them - the cadence and the construction. The fact that this emotion exists is not necessarily compulsory in either occupation, but emotional undercurrents make for stronger art. We find an emphasis also on rhythm and form, a contemplation of composure, a perspective from which to view poetry as a variant of music, and music as a variant of poetry. When we see a lyric sheet, for example, what we read are (effectively) poems set to music. With some artists, this is much more apparent and deliberate, but in writing with the intention of a musical accompaniment, all songwriters are in fact poets - though not all poets are songwriters.

Poets and Songwriters

Over the last century, there has emerged a literary trend of songwriters publishing works of poetry, and a lesser trend of poets making a foray into the world of songwriting. Many of the artists in the category of the former have found success in both fields and shall be remembered for their contributions to each. Perhaps the best example of this crossover-brand artist is the late Leonard Cohen, who began his career as a poet in the 1950's, developing later into a highly respected and influential musician. His first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was released eleven years before his debut 1967 record Songs of Leonard Cohen, and in the fifty years following he was prolific as both writer and songwriter - exploring also the realms of painting and novel-writing. Known best for 1984 track "Hallelujah," Cohen made a conscious choice to pursue songwriting, a far more prosperous field than poetry financially. What Cohen left behind upon his passing in 2016, is a rich legacy of poetic and musical work, the two areas informing and benefiting from each other.

In a less successful move, "beat" poet Allen Ginsberg tried his hand at songwriting and enjoyed far less praise than Cohen, despite sharing poetic influences such as Walt Whitman and W.B Yeats. Ginsberg worked on occasion with the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, and in many of his poetry collections, we often find poems written with the intention of a musical accompaniment - most notably his many hymns. Ginsberg as a poet in his later years was deeply in touch with music despite not making it as a songwriter. Walking into any bookstore, you're guaranteed to find one of his collections in the poetry corner, alongside the works of Cohen, as well as the collections of fellow musicians such as Kate Bush and PJ Harvey.

Recently, I chanced upon a collection of British folk-hero Billy Bragg lyrics compiled as a collection titled The Poetry of Billy Bragg. When the lyrics of such artists are taken as poetry, it's easy to view them as such. Though both Bush and Harvey are again known primarily as musicians, they blur the line between the two ventures beautifully. Take away the instruments and a lyric book has chapbook potential, the lines heightened with a musical accompaniment. The debate as to how much we can consider music poetry, and vice versa, has persisted for an immeasurable length of time, and it's a debate which shall likely continue. Is it possible to look upon Morrissey as poet re-positioned as a frontman? Who's to say?

Songwriters as Poets

We can turn out attention to many current songwriters and consider them as poets - regardless of genre or content. If a song begins as a lyrical composite, then it begins initially as a poem written with music in mind. If a song stems from strummed chords or a bass riff then this might be the case less so. Regardless, there's often an element of poetry present, across a number of genres. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he added further fuel to the fire in regards to debates; staking a firm claim for the relevance and stature of lyrics as literary creations bordering on poetry.

Consider rap music. Tupac Shakur, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West - all poets in their own right. Call them street poets perhaps. Rap is "word-centered," working in the same basic way as poetry, toying with the flow and relations of words while often carrying emotional weight. Many modern rappers cite Gil Scott Heron as an influence; Heron identified strongly as a poet. His spoken word craft laid a foundation for the rappers of the modern era, suggesting that hip-hop has long been associated with the art of poetry, even if only as a by-product. What both forms of discourse offer an artist is a voice. There has always been a space for poetry when it comes to providing a platform for those who struggle to make themselves heard. Through the realm of music and, in turn, poetry, these artists had a voice, and the addition of music was a way to ensure that it reached a larger audience. Rap can certainly be considered a form of poetry, relying on rhyme, delivery, and musicality. It isn't the romantic ideal of the form which the likes of romantic poets Wordsworth and Shelley envisioned during the nineteenth century, but it is poetry regardless. It is rap primarily, but it is also something else. Many would be inclined to disagree, but if we approach poetry with an open mind, then where can we draw the line? It seems shortsighted to disregard hip-hop artists as poets, in that few poets are able to craft and convey a line or rhyme as West or Lamar do. Chicago native Chance The Rapper showed a penchant for poetry during a recent NPR session, while mentor West not-so-long-ago contributed a poem about McDonald's to Frank Ocean's Boys Don't Cry zine.

We find poetry in its more traditional forms in alternative music, primarily in the work of spoken word artists, who write poetry and then set it to music, with a heightened emphasis on poetic features. In recent years the likes of Hotel Books, The Hotelier and OWEL have all done this to good effect, and in many instances the songs created are all the more moving because they have poetry at the forefront, establishing poetry and lyrics as different products within music. Heart on the sleeve lyricism is akin to poetry, operating on similar levels, though the term is a broad label, a label assigned with increasing ease to certain artists.

Stipe & Smith

Turn to pre-millennial musicians such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Michael Stipe (of R.E.M) and Patti Smith. Through a lens, we can view each as poets. Stipe, for example, is an avid writer of haikus as well as song lyrics, a collaborator on a poetry collection with Patti Smith titled Two Times Intro: On The Road. Each of the above lyricists writes songs which carry great poetic power - Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" for example. The lines resonate with narrative prowess and remain poignantly eloquent. We're inclined to suggest that they would strike a chord in the absence of chords. The words carry meaning alongside the music but we would be remiss to remove the music, though you'd still be left with something likely to make a mark on an audience. We read poetry, just as we listen to music, for a number of reasons: for enjoyment, for emotional catharsis, for meditation, for perspective, for understanding. Sometimes we read or listen, to simply pass the time. Both poetry and music are gateways to experience, and we are able to distinguish between the two just as easily as we are able to identify the overlap.


Kurt Cobain journal page

There are definitely some distinctions. At the end of the day, the argument gains plausibility depending on the angle from which it is approached. We can approach it from an example which shows similarities, or differences. The majority of music as an art form often relies heavily on repetition, in that verse often leads to chorus, chorus leads to verse, to chorus, to bridge, to chorus. It is by no means a set structure, but it's a structure absent in (almost all) poetry. Thus a difference in conception arises when creating music if the intention is to create music. It's part of the reason many would be swift in disregarding Kurt Cobain as a poet - he was always a musician first, though his journals contain moments of poetry. Music is made less poetic and more musical through the addition of instruments, also - the intention to effect is channeled differently. Poetry is primarily a solo art, and by adding in another element the individual nature of the art is lessened. Poetry is often self-contained, written within a solitary bubble - it is very rarely a collaborative effort. Poetry is taught in schools; songs and lyrics are not, though the literary merit is arguably the same. Poems benefit from the silence of their surroundings, the blank spaces in between stanzas, while music fills these spaces with sound. Perhaps the main difference is that poetry calls itself poetry, while music settles for lyrics instead. They appear to be very similar things but are separated by details. Food for thought, if nothing more.

Craig Barker

Craig is an aspiring English teacher currently living in the UK. He likes sad songs and 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,' but not at the same time.