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March, 2014

Songs vs. Poems

by Webmaster

There is a difference between songs and poems.

Well, yeah. Duh.

I'm not talking about the music, the groove, the drums and pedal steel and screaming guitars. I'm talking about the lyrics.


Yeah, lyrics. What comes to your mind? Rhyme? Rhythm? Repetition? A chorus?

Most of the time, songs rhyme. Hard or perfect rhymes are scarce, and no matter what you come up with, someone has probably used it before. So, a lot of songwriters use soft or near rhymes. Poetry I studied in school used hard rhymes. Then free verse became popular. Well-written cowboy poetry still uses hard rhymes, and some cowboy poets use soft rhymes, like the country song writers. And Taylor Swift wrote and recorded a deeply-moving song with no rhymes at all. So, no. Rhymes alone don't mark the difference between songs and poems.

Rhythm? Songs have rhythm. Sometimes the rhythm is inherent in the lyrics. Sometimes the musical groove makes up for a lack of rhythm in the lyrics. Poetry I studied in school used precise rhythm, and each rhythmic pattern had it's own name, like iambic pentameter. Well-written cowboy poetry still uses perfect rhythm. So, no. Rhythm alone doesn't mark the difference.

Repetition? Songs use a lot of repetition, especially in the chorus. And the chorus is repeated. Some poems use repetition. Some poems from previous centuries even used choruses. In Greek plays, there were actual groups of people (a chorus) who came out and recited the lines of poetry in unison. And, some song forms don't use choruses or repetition. So, repetition and choruses don't mark the difference.

Content? No. Structure? No. Alliteration? No. Metaphors and similes? No.

Well, what does?

Good question. It's as hard to answer as "What is pornography?" And it has the same answer: I don't know, but I know it when I see it.

So, I'll let a lot of people, who are better at this than I, answer the question.

"What's interesting about songs where the writer is genuinely in love with words is that it's easy to read the lyrics like a poem." — Ann Reed

"I would never be so pretentious to say that my lyrics are poetry. ... Poems are poems. Song lyrics are for songs." — Ben Gibbard

"Like poems, the best country songs are short and powerful. When you've got so few words to deliver the emotional punch, each word must be laden with meaning." — Elaine Glusac

"Ezra Pound believed that each line was a minor component of the poem and must be tested for its authority and rightful place. He advocated a line-by-line examination; after the poet is certain that he has accomplished his purpose, he should move to the top of the poem and remove the first line. If the music or meaning of the poem isn't altered, that line has no place and must be deleted. Then the weight of the second line is judged, and again, if it doesn't alter the music or meaning, it has no place. Line by line, the poem is trimmed of excess fat so its essence is distilled." —Keith Flynn

"Poetry exists in its conciseness, how much is packed into it; it's important to be able to read and reread it at your own speed. Lyrics exist in time, second to second to second. Therefore, lyrics always have to be underwritten. You cannot expect an audience to catch more than the ear is able to catch at the tempo and richness of the music. The perfect example of this is 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning,' the first part of which I'd be embarrassed to put down on paper. It's just ridiculous. What Oscar knew was that there was music to go with it. The minute that Dick Rodger's music is added, the whole song has an emotional weight. I really think that 'Oklahoma' ran seven years on that lyric." — Stephen Sondheim

"...a lot of poetry, from Rimbaud and Baudelaire to Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, some of the great poets of our time. It sets a standard. You start to look at how certain people describe emotions, or describe something visual that they see. I think as a songwriter you can get trapped into writing songs that are like the ones you hear on the radio, and sometimes you want to do that and sometimes you don't, because by the time your song comes out, it'll be dated. So you have to think, where am I going for my reference points?" — Tori Amos

"As I started writing about loss and grief, I was taking what felt unmanageable and using my songwriting, my sense of poetry and discipline, to try and make it manageable." — Roseanne Cash

"...songs are not about 'I feel sad.' They're about, 'Let me tell you the things that are on the walls and in the room I'm sitting in,' and between the lines of that is the fact that I'm sad. You know what I mean? It's the real locations, the real names. Even when you don't know the people, it's the names that give you a sense of place. That's what makes poetry or songwriting better than just talking." — Adam Duritz

"When you sing, you are communicating poetry that was so beautiful a composer decided to set it to music." — Joan Gregory

"...sometimes they have elements that could be shared with poetry. But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words.
" And there’s much more use of cliché in songwriting than there is in poetry, because a song is going at a certain tempo and it’s going fast, and if you miss a line, you missed it. But when you’re reading poetry, you read it at a much slower pace. So the lines can be much more dense, and have words which are not usually in a speaking vocabulary, and which carry multiple meanings. Because you can slow it down so you can get it.
" But in a song, it’s clocking along, and if you missed it, it’s gone. And if you miss enough of it, well, the song is gone, and you sort of lose interest." — Paul Simon

"Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self—involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I'm writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It's a different aspect of communication. It's for the people." — Patti Smith

"[Poetry] challenges you. Much of its importance is that it's one of the few places left in culture that makes things difficult—it asks you to think, to perceive and not to take for granted what we think about the world." — Dan Beachy-Quick

"I think lyrics are different from poetry, not just in the economy of words, but the feel and rhythm of the words. Poetry can be angular, sharp—edged, weighty, self—obsessed and, well, anything it damn well wants, whereas lyrics are necessarily confined to a smaller framework and, even with a story-song, must live in a smaller space. Sure, poetry has rhythm, bu lyrics should fall out of one's mouth like polished rocks!" — Michael McGarrah

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