Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Well, before this blog post even begins, we guess it’s necessary to point out that everyone is entitled to their opinion – if you feel strongly either way, we’d love you to let us know!

Photo by Meg / CC BY NAME
Photo by Meg / CC BY NAME

While we understand that there are, of course, differences between lyrics and what you immediately think of as poetry, we feel there is a strong case for accepting lyrics as a legitimate sub-category of poetry.

Help Us Out, George Michael

Let’s have some examples, and then you can decide for yourself if you still think they shouldn’t count.

Seeing excerpts from songs written down rather than sung out may help you see them in a different way. A very silly example comes from George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’. Would you consider him a poet?! Maybe not, but read this without singing it to the tune (if you can!)

Something in your eyes
Calls to mind a silver screen
And it’s all sad goodbyes.
I’m never going to dance again,
Guilty feet have got no rhythm,
Though it’s easy to pretend
I know you’re not a fool

Put aside what you know about the cheesy 80’s beats that accompany this song, and the lyrics are actually very deep and sad – the idea of physically not being able to dance because of a feeling of guilt and shame is very profound, and has layers to it that the saxophone groove perhaps belies. The lover that he has betrayed also seems to know about his betrayal, which adds some layers to the story.

Examples

This is a cheesy example, so lets look at some other, very varying examples:

Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop,
Could you find me?
Would you kiss my eyes?

Madonna, ‘Frozen’
You only see what your eyes want to see,
How can life be what you want it to be,
You’re frozen
When your heart’s not open.
You’re so consumed with how much you get, 
You waste your time with hate and regret,
You’re broken

Radiohead, ‘Thinking About You’
Been thinking about you, so how can you sleep?
These people aren’t your friends, they’re paid to kiss your feet

Adele, ‘Someone Like You’
You know how the time flies,
Only yesterday was the time of our lives

Look at the clever twist on a common phrase that Adele uses, the suggestion of Radiohead that the focus of the speaker’s  thoughts could be strong enough that the object of his desire senses it and suffers disturbed sleep, the gorgeous  language used in the Van Halen song, and the use of metaphor in ‘Frozen’.

So What Is Poetry?

There is more to poetry than being a bit randomly profound, so this alone does not qualify a song like ‘Careless Whisper’ as a poem. So the question really is – what is poetry? Really – ask yourself. Write down a definition.

It’s not easy to answer, is it?

If you know your history of language, you will know that ballads and poems existed in spoken form long before it became commonplace to write them down, and that many of them were spoken in rhythms or accompanied by a beat. Somewhere along the way, spoken-word poetry and the written versions started to part ways. This is a highly reductive round-up, but we don’t have time to go into the whole history of language right now!

Write Poetry for Cancer Research
Photo by Twylo / CC BY NAME

In early English, the word ‘poetry’ was also often used to refer to creative writing generally, and as something that had been made or created, showing that early on the boundaries were blurred. Nowadays we understand poetry as a piece of language that has been specifically structured and crafted using one or more of myriad techniques for maximum effect, as it conveys to us a story, feeling, idea or concept. How this is achieved is impossible to discuss in one blog – there are too many ways. Yet still, even after all the advances and changes in our perception of writing and form, there is a fair amount of elitism associated with it that means only published, polished verses of a certain type are considered ‘real’ poetry. Unless it’s a strong representation of a different culture, something tribal or foreign – then it’s a ‘novelty’.

The people who reject lyrics as being poetry are thinking of poetry in a small way – they’re failing to embrace spoken poetry, slam poetry, rap, pop, rock, all the different and wonderful ways of embracing and loving language. And – dare we say it? – this is likely to be down to poetic snobbery. And it’s a shame. The snobs are missing out.

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3 thoughts on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

  1. I definitely think so, but in a different way. Poetry, as in non-song poetry, is distinct from song lyric poetry in that harmony and melody plays a much larger role in song lyric poetry.

    Pearl Jam are a great example:

    Alone, listless
    Breakfast table in an otherwise empty room
    Young girl, violins
    Center of her own attention
    Mother reads aloud, child tries to understand it
    Tries to make her proud
    The shades go down, it’s in her head
    Painted room
    Empty house there’s something wrong
    Don’t call me daughter, not fair to
    The picture kept will remind me

    Quite a few of their songs read as poetry, but when sung it’s different.

    Great topic of discussion here.

    1. Absolutely agree – they’re definitely not the same, I guess the case ‘for’ is really for the recognition of them as a ‘sub-category’… the harmonies and melodies of lyric poetry add so much to lyrics when they’re sung as a whole song.
      So here’s an interesting can of worms…!! Which is harder, to juggle the extra factors needed to create a whole song, or to create a piece of written poetry that is effective without the added effect of music?!

  2. I believe quite a few poets also collaborate with songwriters and pen lyrics. And songwriters who end up writing poetry too (Leonard Cohen). But yes, there are definitely many song lyrics that I would consider poetry: David Bowie’s ‘Changes’, for instance.

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