What Poets Can Learn from Songwriters
by David Alpaugh
In Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim zeroes in on the
essential difference between the art of the lyricist and that of the poet:
"Poetry doesn't need music," he writes, "lyrics do." Poetry is the art of
"concision," written to stand on its own; lyrics, the art of "expansion,"
written to accommodate music.
And yet, the line between song and poem is not as firm as Sondheim suggests.
William Blake called his greatest books of poetry Songs of Innocence and Songs
of Experience. Walt Whitman called the opening poem of Leaves of Grass "Song of
Myself." In both cases, their work straddles the line between the genres.
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me
practically begs to be set to music, and has been by more than one composer.
Whitman's great elegy, beginning
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house
near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing…
is one of the loveliest "songs" in the Kurt Weill / Langston Hughes
musical, Street Scene.
Perhaps the most significant divergence between these sister arts today is the
way in which poets and songwriters imagine their audiences. Whereas poetry is
aimed almost exclusively at a limited number of fellow poets, hundreds of
millions of men and women listen to songs on ipods and smart phones and millions
more sing them in showers, kitchens, and karaoke bars. And almost none of these
song lovers have ever written a song in their life.
Regrettably, too many poets are proud of their tribal isolation. Songwriting,
they believe, is a commercial enterprise, aimed at the masses; poetry is the
high art of the super-educated (formal poetry); super-sensitive (confessional
poetry); or super-intellectual (language poetry). Poetry has always been and is
at its best, they argue, when it is "caviar to the general."
Poets who reject such snobbery and want to achieve wider readership might
consider the qualities that attract so many intelligent men and women to their
sister art. Here are three that strike me as crucial:
1. Songwriters wholeheartedly embrace the obligation to entertain. They know
that even the most serious, melancholy song must delight the listener; that the
core emotion, even when the subject is loss or grief, is never depression,
Unfortunately, the word "entertainment" makes most poets shudder. They think
there is something cheap about delighting readers and listeners. Because wit,
humor, and satire are undeniably "entertaining" the prejudice against them
is widespread. I have heard Billy Collins badmouthed by "serious" poets who have
difficulty selling more than a few dozen copies of their own books!
Yet no less a poet than T.S. Eliot defined poetry as "a superior amusement"; and
William Shakespeare, who delighted audiences that included both noblemen and
groundlings, is our greatest poet and dramatist (as well as a brilliant
songwriter) not despite being entertaining but because of it. Poets, like
songwriters, should embrace the fact that they are entertainers. The only
question is whether or not they are successful ones. We must (to re-phrase
Auden) "love the reader or die."
2. Song lyrics usually minimize the specific individual in favor of a more
generic, user-friendly, singable voice. Is there a single person on earth who
cannot "remember April"?; who doesn't want to be danced "to the end of love"?;
who wouldn't like to tell the powers that be that "the answer is blowing in the
wind"? Emotion in songs is actually heightened by generalization. Pete Seeger's
"When will they ever learn?" would be far less powerful were it "When will
George Bush (or Anthony Wiener or Muammar Gaddafi) ever learn?"
Poetry used to be written from one human being to another. Too many contemporary
poems are written in the voice of the poetry specialist speaking to his or her
colleagues. Many poems are overburdened by trivial autobiographical details that
discourage outsiders from reading them in the study, let alone reciting them in
the shower. A poem should be as easy to "sing" as a song; but when I hear that
narcissistic, self-absorbed, "poetic" voice, muttering to itself, I find myself
shouting, "Hell, no, I won't go!"
3. Last, but first in importance, the primary mission of the poem should be the
same as the primary mission of the song. Is it to educate? to describe the human
condition? to make you laugh or cry? to make things happen? to change your
life—or the world?
Songwriters know that it is none of the above. Though a song may accomplish all
of those laudable deeds it can do so only after first achieving its primary
goal: to make the listener want to hear the song again and again!
If I'm satisfied with listening to a song once the song is a failure! Yet,
how many times have I heard poets introduce their poems with words like these:
"I think I may have read this poem here before. If so, I hope you'll bear with
me. Hopefully there are others here who haven't heard it."
Imagine Paul Simon saying, "If there's anyone here who has already heard 'Bridge
Over Troubled Water' I apologize for boring you with it again." If Frost came
back from the grave would audiences shout, "We only want to hear new work,
Robert. Don't you dare read 'Birches' or 'The Road Not Taken'!" Frost
acknowledged poetry's ambition to be heard again and again when he explained
that his goal was "to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of."
Too many poets programmatically eschew the memory cues songwriters unabashedly
use to accomplish this mission. After talking to writing students, conditioned
by their professors to tolerate no rhyme or meter in poetry, James Fenton
suggests (in American Scholar) that they would "be happier if they
accepted that the person who was studying creative writing, with the aim of
producing poetry, was the same person who had a car full of country and western
tapes, or whatever the music was that delighted them."
The aversion to rhyme and meter, Fenton implies, is an artificially-acquired,
counter-intuitive, schizophrenic taste. The popularity of rap, rock, and country
music, as well as the power of advertising, remind us that our desire for
repetition is based on pulse and heartbeat and the nature of the human brain.
It's suicidal for poets to reject their own biology!
Still, I hear critics admonishing me for ignoring the singing elephant in the
room. It's not the lyric, they protest, but the music that makes us want
to hear a song again and again. And music is something poets do not have in
Or do they? To be sure, poets cannot rely on actual musical tones; still the
poems I love (formal or open) have a quasi-melodic structure that has an effect
not unlike melody proper.
Melody seizes us, picks us up, and holds us with the progression of its tones,
never putting us back on the ground until the final notes stop vibrating. Great
poems use purely verbal elements—syllables, words, accent—to build a rhetorical
arc that provides a similar experience. Here's an example of a poetic "melody"
by Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Walt reminds us that poetic music can be achieved without fixed form as long as
it embraces repetition: I think, I turn, I live; I stand, look, long; they do
not sweat, whine, lie awake, weep, make me sick; not one is dissatisfied,
demented; not one kneels, not one is respectable, unhappy. Whitman's verse may
be "free," but it is loaded with alliteration, assonance, and anaphora. His
"melody" seizes us by the imagination, turns us towards his beloved animals, and
keeps us wholly focused on them until the final reverberating syllable returns
us to "earth."
There can be relief and contrast in poetic melody akin to what we find in a
musical bridge; but no prefacing, meandering, digression, parentheses. Once a
successful poem begins the reader surrenders to the exhilarating ride its verbal
The possibilities are infinite:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
In contrast to Whitman's affectionate, languorous, comforting melody, Gwendolyn
Brooks' tune is jazzy, aggressive, staccato, disturbing. Whitman plays the
cello; Brooks the trumpet; both instruments are perfectly suited to the subjects
and quasi-musical effects the poets produce. Like Whitman, Brooks does not
fear repetition. Not only does she pepper her poem with rhyme and eight
metrical clusters of three strong beats; she uses the word "We" seven
times at the end of each line where its effect is like a trumpet blast. Both
poets have crafted verbal melodies that have brought me back to these poems
again and again.
At a time when too many poets have so purged their "poetry" of repetition and
melody that it reads and sounds like outright prose, songwriters continue to
satisfy a human craving that cannot and should not be denied. Whether or not
poets can again become relevant to non-practitioners of their art may depend on
how well they listen to their big sister.
David Alpaugh is an award-winning poet, writer, teacher and playwright. You can
visit him and his work at: davidalpaugh.com.
This essay was originally published by Scene4Magazine.