Lyric(s) Poetry?

A little while ago I was copyediting a rhetoric textbook that used both poetry and prose as examples. I was thrilled, it’s not often students are asked to look at the rhetorical strategies of poetry alongside essays and works of fiction. Until I came to one chapter that had printed under the heading “Poem” the lyrics for a song by The Beatles. I noted in the text that, while many song lyrics are incredibly poetic, the mere fact of having line breaks in their written form does not make them poetry. Moreover, if one can study narrative fictional films without calling it a novel, why can’t one read song lyrics without calling them poetry. I didn’t even broach the subject of the negating effect of over-using the label poetry. For one, it compromises poetry as an art-form in and of itself. Many things are analogized to poetry (“That sunset was [like] poetry.”) or called poetic, and that’s fine. That reinforces the sense of singular beauty of the genre. But to call something poetry that is distinctly something else… For two, it also minimizes the value of the other art-form.

Jenny Henrix writing for The New Yorker online yesterday put it well:

Most of us casually use the term “poetry” to refer to almost anything we consider beautifully made, from a cake to a sunset to a well-executed double Salchow. (Appropriately: the word poetry is derived from the Greek verb “poiein,” meaning “to make.”) So to deny the label to song lyrics does seem like a value judgment. But while some lyricists, notably many in hip-hop, are remarkably poetic, it seems pointless—and even harmful—to insist on lyrics as poetry. Kevin Young, writing in Bookforum’s music issue, is right when he suggests that such an expansion of the term “risks reducing poetry to little more than a free-floating feeling.” Prose, though it can also be poetic, isn’t poetry, and no one complains about that. Being a separate entity, far from denigrating lyrics, allows us to measure them on their own terms. As Young puts it: “Aren’t the lyrics profound enough as the words to great songs? Need they be poetry, too?”

She quotes an exceptional poet, Kevin Young, in this section but starts off with a quote from Billy Collins. Yes, that opposition is intentional – Billy Collins work is mediocre at best, but he’s well-known and widely read and that counts for something. Anyways, backtracking the links, Hendrix is responding to an article on SmartSet by Kristen Hoggatt who quotes Billy Collins saying that lyrics are not poetry in the Wall Street Journal. Her complaint is twofold: 1) saying that songs aren’t poetry makes poetry seem elite, and 2) lyrics are actually poetry. Though she begins the article by saying that almost no-one in the poetry world would say that lyrics are poetry, she a few sentences later tells poets to “get off their high horses” and include lyrics in their art-form. She writes:

“[Collins’s comments] surprised me, coming from him, because Collins has been repeatedly praised for accessibility and an ability to relate to everyday people — for many, he himself can be considered a gateway into poetry, yet here he is pushing poetry to the elite fringe. Shouldn’t someone at the forefront of the poetry movement try to discourage the misconception that poetry is highbrow? Poetry kicks ass, and if I were Billy Collins, I would do everything in my power to convince others that it does, using the most powerful verses to get my point across, which naturally include — come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses — song lyrics.”

There are a number of problems with her argument. The people that think poetry are elite are people who haven’t read poetry, for the most part, or didn’t like what they read. Elitism is a charge thrown at things that are difficult, complicated, complex and demand effort. In art, especially literature, none of these things are bad. In fact, most real writers want their work to be complex, want to be more than flash on the surface and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator under the guise of accessibility. Good poetry, real poetry, is accessible but it is also difficult. Martín Espada, for example, or Seamus Heaney. There are layers at work here, layers of meaning, allusion, rhythm, rhyme, signification and poetics. And careful readers who care enough to read critically (not negatively, but engages) will get all that, not on a first reading perhaps but over time as they engage with more levels of the work. The problem isn’t that poetry is difficult, ‘highbrow’ to use her words, it’s that the right-wing denigration of cultural values continues to influence otherwise intelligent people to sling around worlds like ‘elite’ without thinking about what they really mean. This is no different than calling John Kerry elite because he speaks another language. Anyone can learn another language, or several, if they work at it. Choosing to do something that’s difficult should not be disparaged but celebrated. Poetry is not always easy, but for that matter neither is literary fiction, non-fiction, dance, painting, sculpture, photography or music. All worthwhile art takes effort to create, and effort to appreciate.

The second major flaw with her argument comes from her examples. She quotes two songs in full as though they demonstrated the fact that song lyrics are no different from poems. The issue is not her choice of songs, but that what she rightly calls “the poetry of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence'” is poetics, not poetry. Being poetic does not make something poetry. The sunset is poetic, is it a poem? Most people wouldn’t even have to think about that. The novel 100 Years of Solitude is poetic, the writing has poetry in it, but it would be inane to call it a poem. It’s a novel. Songs are a different genre, and yes, they can be poetic. They may even be related to poetry. (She writes “After all, songs and poems were at one time the same thing.” She’s referring to the tradition of epic Greek poetry, which were sung by troubadors. Fiction and novels came from this tradition too, but you don’t see people calling especially beautifully written novels poems.) But being related to something does not make it synonymous.

Take genres of music. Rock ‘n Roll came out of Blues, no argument there. But no self-respecting music critic would call them the same thing. And even were we to accept her premise that song lyrics are poems, would she have us be choosy about it? Joni Mitchell, her other example, counts but Brittney Spears doesn’t? Where is the line drawn? Rhyming heroic couplets does not a poem make.

She goes on to say that poets don’t want to call songwriters poets because they are envious of their popularity and riches: “these figures are just too cool, too popular to exist in the world as a bestselling musical artist and a struggling lover of words.” Of course, that’s absurd. Billy Collins is popular and makes a living as a poet, for example. But take, for example, Leonard Cohen. He published a book of poems, and it was treated as poems. Jewel did too. Neither of these books were received exceptionally well, despite the author’s popularity as a musician. That’s because they were read as poems, apart from the hint of melody that inevitably underpins reading well-known and well-written song lyrics on a page. Songwriters who are also poets are generally not great at both, because the differences in the genres requires different techniques, different crafts. It’s like someone who already speaks Spanish trying to learn Italian – it may seem like it will be easy to jump from one to the other, but often it’s more confusing than learning a non-romance language. You keep trying to use Spanish words, and they just don’t work in Italian.

Her next example is that the New Yorker printed a Bob Dylan poem called  “21.” Notice, though, that it is distinctly not a song. In fact, couldn’t be performed as a song if you tried. It doesn’t even deserve comment. Someone can be an artist in two (or more) mediums. Many, many people are. That doesn’t make the two mediums the same.

Her conclusion is that poetry is getting pushed out of the mainstream because the highbrow elite writers won’t let the in-touch, cool songwriters in their little club. She’s right that poetry is being pushed out of the mainstream (I would say has been pushed out of the mainstream, was pushed out of the mainstream with the invention of the novel), but dead wrong about the reasons and implied solutions. To quote:
It seems to me that if those at the forefront of the poetry movement continue to use their power to push poetry out of the mainstream, they will get precisely what they’re asking for:  poetry will continue to be regarded as obscure, academic, and out of touch with the allegorical Everyman, undermining the efforts of columns like mine, slam artists, and every elementary school teacher who attempts to get their kids hooked on poetry. And that’s a mistake nobody can afford to make.

Let’s just think a minute about the allegorical Everyman, and who defines that person. Is it George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber? Or is it Barak and Michelle Obama? Is it people who have decided that everything that is new, difficult or requires some attention and study is elite, or is it people who recognize that not everything can be black and white? I do absolutely think this is related to the political discourse in our country, which belittles and devalues intelligence and substance. And academic is not a dirty word, and it is not a bad thing, just like pop music is not worthless or stupid. Each has their place, their value and their fans, and sometimes (like me) someone likes both. But putting all that aside, and even assuming that her pandering to the right-wing discourse is unintentional, the way to get people interested in poetry is not to dumb it down, not to tell them that the songs they like are poems. It’s to teach and read poems that are substantial and approachable. To encourage them to care about art enough to put the effort in. To change the mindset that style is more important than substance, and that if it’s not easy it’s elite.

I’m a poet. And a translator. And a teacher. And I’ve taught high-school students, college students and adults (my parents included) to read poetry with care and pleasure. It’s not that hard, really. And it certainly isn’t any easier for the wealth of terrible poetry that gets shoved down people’s throats under the misnomer of being accessible.

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