songs, and poetry

Two things today:

First, I saw a couple of good comments on Les Miz.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Twenty minutes into the retelling of fugitive Valjean, his monomaniacal pursuer Javert, the torch singers Fantine and Eponine and the rest, I wanted somebody to just nail the damn camera to the ground.

I had exactly that thought, at pretty much the same moment (during "What Have I Done?" – I think that would be about twenty minutes in).

From the New York Daily News:

It’s worth seeing the movie for Hathaway alone.

True (though there are other reasons to see it as well).

Oh, and has been pointed out in a few places, every possible piece of religious symbolism is heavily underlined (in that "Do you get it? Are you getting the point here?" way that's always so enjoyable).


Second, Maggie over at Maggie Madly Writing posted a very interesting post called "Poetry and Popular Music." Her basic premises were 1) people who want to write poetry should read poetry, and 2) people who want to write poetry should limit how much popular music they listen to.

I had so many thoughts about this that I decided to post them here, rather than write a comment that was three times as long as her post.

Short story is that I agree with #1 (with comments) and somewhat agree with #2, though for different reasons (I disagree with her reasons, but I have different ones).

First of all, I do appreciate the idea that poets (or aspiring poets) should read poetry. This sounds obvious, but I've known some who didn't. Poetry (and I saw quite a bit of this at college) gets saddled with a lot of nonsense ("I'm just expressing my feelings, man."). Frankly, some people take it up because, as you say, poems are mostly short and can appear easier than, for example, novels.

Which is, by the way, not true at all. As my father used to say, the two most difficult types of writing are poetry and humor, because they are the only two where every word has to be perfect or the whole thing fails.

So, yes, poets should read poetry, and if it turns out that they can't hack it as poets, there's no shame in moving on to something easier. Like novels.

As for song lyrics I think it's a really interesting and provocative idea that poets can be too much (and too easily) influenced by song lyrics.

I do disagree with one of Maggie's premises: "Songs are poems, but they’re not necessarily good poems. In popular music, there are few deep meanings to be found. The lyrics aren’t all that great."

Song lyrics are not poems (though they can look like poems if you write them out), and what makes great song lyrics is completely different from what makes good poems. Song lyrics are an adjunct (and a secondary one) to a piece of music. Opera and rock & roll are forms of music, not forms of literature – immediately recognizable even if the words are removed or sung in an unfamiliar language.

As I say, song lyrics can resemble poems, but that's similar to how movie scripts can resemble plays. You can read a movie script, but that won't tell you if the movie is any good, because you're missing the visual element, which is more important. (The analogy isn't perfect, but I think it's pretty good.)

For example, if you just read the dialog from Avatar, you'd think it was written for twelve-year-olds. In context, it's fine. If you just read the dialog for The Searchers there are major plot elements that you would miss completely, because they are never spoken out loud. And you certainly wouldn't have any idea of what kind of picture it is.

This is not uniform, of course. You could probably learn more about a Leonard Cohen song by just reading the lyrics than a Kurt Cobain song.

I'll give an example: the song "How Soon Is Now." I like the overall sound of it, the melody, Morrissey's voice. The lyrics are whiny, self-centered and annoying, but that doesn't reduce my enjoyment of the song, mostly because the way he's singing it, with florid emotionalism but with a lot of ironic distance (he learned that from Bryan Ferry πŸ™‚ ) means that you can enjoy the lyrics if you agree with them, or ignore them if you don't. The same lyrics, done as a quiet, sincere folk song, would be unbearable (I want to yell, "You know why you're not getting laid? You're too whiny!").

Lyrics exist in a context (and in the live context that includes how Morrisey dresses and moves) and they're not meant to function outside of that context.

(Plus there's that clever bit at the beginning, which wouldn't come across on paper, where he sings "I am the sun and the air..." [long pause] and then you realize he actually said "son and heir.")

The song also works just fine when performed by t.A.T.u, who are as far as I know singing phonetically (they're Russian and I don't think they spoke English).

Another example would be Richie Furay, from the band Poco, who in the early days of the band wrote several excellent song with very negative lyrics (sad or angry) coupled with very up-tempo and cheerful music. Unfortunately, somebody pointed out that he was doing this (he hadn't realized it), and then he stopped.

There are even some great songs where the lyrics don't mean anything at all. David Bowie has produced lyrics using cut-ups, and I'm fairly certain some lyrics by Patti Smith, Yes, and Tori Amos are completely devoid of actual meaning, In their proper context, they're fine.

Let alone the singers where you can't tell what they're saying. I had a friend, a songwriter, who liked REM's first couple of albums (more than I did), though because Michael Stipe mumbled he could never make out most of the lyrics. Then, around the third album (as I recall) Stipe started enunciating better, and my friend said he wished Stipe would go back to mumbling.

Anyway, I could go on and on (obviously), but that's my point (song lyrics /= poems, and "better" lyrics doesn't mean lyrics that are more like poems). However, as I said, I do think that the general point is correct. When we're writing (any type of writing), we're influenced by everything we're taking in. I can look back on things I've written and see when I was reading Douglas Adams, because I start to write in his cadences. Which is usually not a good thing.

Some writers make a point of not reading when they're writing. This wouldn't work for me, since I'm never not writing, so I just try to be aware of the influence. Trying to wall it off would be like trying not to think about elephants. πŸ™‚

Anyway, you can probably see why I didn't want to post this as a comment.

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5 Responses to songs, and poetry

  1. Maggie says:

    You thought this through a lot more thoroughly than I did. πŸ™‚ I just remembered someone somewhere saying that all song lyrics were poems and that got me thinking of how inferior most song lyrics are to poetry.

    And I like the mention of t.A.T.u. — one of my favorite bands, though they don’t write their own lyrics most of the time.

  2. I was a semi-pro musician and songwriter for a few years a long time ago. I wrote a lot of songs, and I had friends who were poets (and I even tried to turn some poems into songs — basically it’s like turning a novel into a movie: you have to be willing to be pretty brutal).

    So, I guess I’ve been thinking about these things in the back of my mind ever since, and you happened to open the valve in the dam. πŸ™‚

  3. Alexis says:

    I agree with you. I like your point about lyrics and dialogue in and out of context.

    I think how much a writer is influenced by anything is inherent to that particular writer. Some writers might love pop music, but think, “Hey, I can write better material than this,” and that could be their whole inspiration. It’s different for everyone.

    Plus, the opinion of whether a song has a “deep meaning” or not is not dependent on the lyrics but instead rests with how they are interpreted. I think, depending on where one finds him or herself in life, someone could find “deep meaning” in anything. That’s the idea behind a lot of poetry, as well. Some writers won’t explain what their poems or lyrics mean because they want their readers and listeners to interpret them for themselves. On the surface, sure, some pop music leaves much to be desired, but then, not everyone desires more.

    As for reading poetry to write poetry, yes. But only as a basis for creating and only if the writer actually enjoys reading poetry. I’ve known talented people who create things they don’t enjoy consuming. Actors who don’t like to watch movies. Singers who don’t listen to a lot of music. But when they do it, they enjoy the act of doing it. That’s what matters, I think. The worst thing a potential poet can do, in my opinion, is compare his or her work to what has been done before and judge it that way. Sometimes, if the importance of reading poetry to write poetry (or anything) seems so important, the poet loses sight of his or her own originality.

    • I think you’re right about some people just enjoying the process (I fall into that category myself, in fact). I think this is reflected in the Jan Sleet mysteries. She doesn’t solve mysteries because she wants to catch criminals – she just really likes the process of solving mysteries.

      After all, it was Orson Welles who said, “I don’t love films. I love making films.”

      I read an article about Steven Spielberg recently where it talked about how much he enjoys making movies: being on the set, making decisions, solving problems. The article said that this is why he’s so prolific; he just really loves making movies (making him the opposite of Alfred Hitchcock, who was often bored when he was shooting a movie — he’d already planned out every aspect of what he was going to do, so actually doing it wasn’t that interesting to him).

      I agree about judging your work compared to others. Hemingway always used to talk about winning the heavyweight championship of writing (with one book, I forget which one, he said he’d finally knocked out Mr. Turgenev). That’s more extreme than most people ever get, but I don’t think it’s helpful to think of it that way.

      My point about poets who don’t like poetry but are attracted to it because it looks like it might be easy was specifically about poetry. Orson Welles didn’t spend a lot of time seeing movies. Quentin Tarantino has spent a lot of time watching movies. Both have made great movies, so obviously either approach can work. πŸ™‚

  4. Alexis says:

    Great examples.

    And I agree- poetry isn’t easy. Few crafts are. πŸ™‚

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