Photo of Bob Dylan

Photo of Bob Dylan (Jan Persson, Redferns / December 31, 1969)

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