Because I use pop lyrics in my poems and review records for SPIN and elsewhere, people sometimes ask me whether I think of song lyrics as poetry. Looked at in certain ways, they obviously are; in other respects, it seems worthwhile to preserve a distinction. I have collections of the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert, Stephen Foster, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. What would be the point of denying these lyricists the honorific of "poet"? And if your definition of poetry excludes these lines, your definition of poetry doesn't matter to me:
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters' wives
Don't know how it all got started
I don't know what they're doin' with their lives
I know: Bob Dylan the poet, yawn. You should have heard me go on about these lines when I was 17.
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Still, I've been stranded in the dead waters of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" or some other well-behaved token in a literature anthology (Morrissey's "Cemetery Gates" and Mos Def's "Hip Hop," in the most recent "Norton Introduction to Literature") often enough to question the motivation to enshrine these songs. There's something feebly earnest about anthologies like Richard Goldstein's "The Poetry of Rock" or Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' recent "Anthology of Rap." Does Dylan or Clipse really need to be rescued from the ghetto of popular culture? I'd say anyone who can write like this —
All the snow on the timepiece confusin' 'em
All the snow on the concrete Peruvian
I flew it in, it ruined men, I'm through with them
Blamed for misguiding their life
So go and sue me then
— is doing fine without W. W. Norton's imprimatur.
Anyway, at least half the force of these lines is in Pusha T's delivery: He shakes each syllable in his teeth to break its spine against the click-clack industrial rhythms of the backing track. A great tune, a killer solo, a perfect beat can render terrible lyrics irrelevant, as Neil Young's career proves. (Contrariwise, there are lyricists I admire, like Joanna Newsom, whose music makes me want to stick a tuning fork in my eye.)
Lyrics work best when they aren't straining to achieve poetic effect (ask Jackson Browne). Check Phil Lynott's lines from Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town":
That night over at Johnny's place
Well this chick got up and she slapped Johnny's face
Man, we just fell about the place
If that chick don't want to know, forget her
If she don't want to know what? If she don't want to know. Springsteen became a great songwriter when he stopped aping Dylan and found the poetry in a "sixty-nine Chevy with a 396 / Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor."
At the moment, the lyricist who impresses me most is Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers. Although he wrote some of that Skynyrd-proud band's best numbers, his first few solo records came on too safe. But the songs on his new record, "Southeastern," make all the music around them on the radio sound like jingles for Discount Carpet Warehouse. Partly that's because his voice is so idiosyncratically gorgeous that he could sing the Surgeon General's warning on a pack of smokes and make you cry.
But it's also because of lines like these, from "Different Days": "You been stripping Portland from the day you turned sixteen / You got one thing to sell, benzodiazepine." It's not just that that last line's a hell of a good joke (you don't expect that to be the one thing a stripper has to sell). It's that Isbell knows how his lyrics work in a way that has nothing to do with their meaning. "I step into a shop to buy a postcard for a girl" sounds full of emotion on "Relatively Easy," but why? For one thing, it's perfectly iambic. For another, there's a pleasing consonance of s's and p's.
Like the Clipse lyrics above, Isbell's operate at the phonemic level, sounds picking up on and pinging off one another:
I lost a good friend
Christmastime when folks go off the deep end
His woman took the kids
And he took Klonopin
Enough to kill a man of twice his size
It's not only the end rhymes that power this — listen to the way "woman" resonates with "Klonopin," "Chris" with "kids" and "kill," "time" with "twice" and "size."
This is what Roger Miller calls "hooked up." Miller explained the concept to Dave Hickey for Hickey's entry on "The Song in Country Music" in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors' "A New Literary History of America" (2009) (the single best discussion of song lyrics I know). Miller sang Hickey half a verse of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" —
Busted flat in Baton Rouge
Headed for the trains
Feeling nearly faded as my jeans
"That's hooked up," Miller said. "I love the 'as' that picks up 'flat' and 'bat.'" And "faded" picks up "headed" and "trains."
Hickey asked Waylon Jennings about Hank Williams' songs, and Jennings "sang lines from two or three of them and showed me how the sounding of the consonants moved from the front to the back of the mouth so the vowels were always singable." The songwriter Harlan Howard used Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" as an example:
I try so hard my dear to say
That you're my every dream
Yet you're afraid each thing I do
Is just some evil scheme
Some mem'ry from your lonesome past
Keeps us so far apart
Why can't I free your doubtful mind
And melt your cold, cold heart
Howard "explained that these eight short lines were invisibly held together by fifteen internal r phonemes. There are triples in the first two lines, four pairs, and the terminal 'heart' that gives the verse closure. 'Nobody notices this,' Howard said. 'That's the idea, but once these words are put together this way, they won't come apart.'"
That's important: You don't necessarily attend consciously to these elements in the song; you're not meant to. They're glue, holding the verse in your memory, sticking the words to your ears. And just as the few poets left who write in meter (ahem) don't need to count off beats on their fingers, because they have internalized the mechanism through long practice, a songwriter can lay these units down without having to plot out the placement of r phonemes as he writes. "Once you learned how to do it, you couldn't not do it," Hickey explains.
This is the most significant way in which songs differ from poems — they're intended to be heard, while poems for some time have been written primarily for the eye. As Christopher Ricks puts it in his brilliant and annoying "Dylan's Visions of Sin," "the eye can always simply see more than it is reading, looking at; the ear cannot, in this sense (given what the sense of hearing is), hear a larger span than it is receiving. This makes the relation of an artist like Dylan to song and ending crucially different from the relation of an artist like Donne or Larkin to ending."
Poems, that is to say, are no less complex than a hooked-up country song (or shouldn't be any less complex; God knows they are, often enough). But a poem's hooks are spatial in a way a song's can't be — you see its ending coming — unless the song is reduced to its printed lyrics, in which case it's not a song anymore. Lyrics are just one moving part of the machine we call a song — without music and voice, they just sort of sit there, no matter how meticulously crafted they might be. So whether lyrics are poetry is a question that doesn't require an answer, or has too many to bother with. It's enough that we have songs — "domestic magic," Hickey calls Hank's — and can sing them.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" as well as the forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."