Why yes, yes they are.
I was at a poetry reading by a “famous” (in the poetry world) Irish poet named Paul Muldoon, whose most famous poem’s refrain is something like “with a rinky-tink dinky-tink link link,” or something like that. For such work, Muldoon has won a Pulitzer prize in poetry, which to my mind says something about the state of the arts at this point, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Inevitably, perhaps, during the question and answer period one of the undergrads in the audience asked Mr. Muldoon:
“Sir, do you believe that song lyrics are poetry?”
And Mr. Muldoon said: “Well, no, son. Not really.”
And I wanted this supposedly world-famous, ultra-talented spokesman for modern poetry in the world to explain for us, why, indeed, this was not so. All that he could manage, however, was something along the lines of, “Well, poetry is different; it’s more complex, and it often has forms which are not compatible with simple song lyrics.”
This, incidentally, was very similar to the answer which one of my own English professors had given to me in university, when I had asked him the same question. In fact, he had asked us to bring in a poem to class, our own favourite poem. Most of the students in class obligingly brought in a “real” poem, but I brought in “The Drowning Man,” by The Cure, which had always affected me deeply, as one of the best of all of Robert Smith’s lyrics. My action was met with the response that you have already read.
This obviously leads us to the question: Are Song Lyrics Poetry? It would seem as though the professional poetry establishment, and many English professors and other critics, believe that your favourite alternative lyrics are not, indeed poetry. Why have they come to this concensus? An intersting question, one which is intimately tied up with twentieth-century artistic movements, but one which, as you might have deduced, I have come to believe is bollocks.
In a nutshell, the development of this silly opinion seems to have gone like this:
In the ancient world, and in the middle ages, poetry was usually accompanied by music. The Greeks had their lyre, and the medievals had their ballads. Poetry without music was seen as artificial. The troubadour poetry may well have been sung as well. Dante and Petrarch copied the Roman stanzas that they found in old books, and invented the notion that poetry could be purely intellectual and rhythmic in itself. And this is a fine thing; clearly, many people since their time have found certain lyrics to be very potent and powerful by themselves, without recourse to musical accompaniment. In some cases, one could argue that any music would only draw away from the many levels of meaning and sound that can be savoured when one is allowed to concentrate solely on the lyrics. Clearly, by the nineteenth century, many people throughout Europe and the west had developed a very highly developed ear for poetry, which they found to be vastly entertaining; they could listen to hundreds and hundreds of lines, and find it far more delightful to the ear than hearing an unrhythmic prose story read aloud.
But the point is, that the two forms of poetry, both accompanied and unaccompanied have both been around for a very long time. Who is to say that these poems are not poetry once they are accompanied by music, but they are poetry when they are unaccompanied. In fact, no less an authority than the Norton Anthology of British literature begins with a whole section of medieval ballads, which are known to have been accompanied by instruments, and sung to boot. Likewise with the Old English poetry, which was accompanied, and may well have been sung, as often as not. With this kind of pedigree, my case can entirely rest. Song lyrics are poetry.
Why, then, do elite poets seem to turn their nose up at music lyrics? There are two interrelated reasons for this. One of these is the invention of the phonograph, and the other is the development of anti-humanism in modern art. We’ll deal with both in turn.
Today, many of us can happily listen to a prose story being read aloud. but we find it almost impossible to pay much attention to poetry, certainly not to long poems. Why is this? Because of the invention of the phonograph. With this, people became so used to having music played to them whenever they wished it, and further more, so used to having these songs being played over and over and over again in precisely the same fashion, that I believe that our brains died to poetry. We are spoiled now; in the olden days, to have music, you had to have musicians, or else you had to play the fiddle. Now, you can have musicians at your fingertips. And not just any musician – but, the very best in the world. In the olden days, you had to put up with whatever crappy musicians came to your local town to play, when they decided to play. Not no more, which makes you even more spoiled for the very best music available. It’s the unavoidable effect of having recording and reproduction technology so widely available.
So not only do we expect music now, but, in the early twentieth century, the artists themselves began to turn away from precisely all of those aspects of art which make most people like it: thus, beauty, truth, etc., as I’ve discussed in my post on Twentieth Century Art and elsewhere. As art turned “anti-bourgeois” it became anti-humanist, and artists started to, perversely, make things they knew most people would find disgusting or silly. Thus, we get Philip Glass with his “2 minutes of silence,” and other ridiciulous compositons with “prepared piano,” etc. No one listens to Philip Glass, and yet he’s a hero of modern “classical music.”
Well, guess what? While the “true artists” turned away from everyone and common sense, other musicians decided to write songs that people would like. And some musicians began to write songs which intelligent and thoughtful people who are sensitive to lyrics might like. And some of these lyrics were so sophisticated, that they came to rival in thought and ingenuity all but the most sophisticated poems. I will not pretend that Morrissey trumps Shakespeare or Wordsworth, but he trumps most others in the poetic canon, as often as not.
And so, I maintain that the highbrow Paul Muldoon, and my English professor (though otherwise a nice guy), have been affected by this silly, effected strain of 20th century art, into pretending that our popular song lyrics are not at all “poetry.” This, however, flies in the face of thousands of years of accompanied lyrics being treated as poetry, and so must be patently false. Paul Muldoon simply realizes, like Philip Glass does, that their own art is basically bankrupt, devoid of any useful ideas anymore, and is only the province of a few self-appointed “cultural elitists,” (whose ranks I am normally very happy to join, except when it comes to 20th century art.
So, the point is, it’s time to recognize that our alternative music lyrics are in fact often quite poetic, and meaningful, and deep, and evocative, and imagistic, and punny, and playful, and provocative, and all of the other things that poetry can be. The only thing they usually do not do, is to have very set meters and stanza formats – but then again… didn’t 20th century poetry do away with form? Oh, I guess they quickly realized that this was almost essential – so many “poets” of the past 10 or 20 years have begun using complex meters, in an effort to rescue some sense of legitimacy, although in fact they are basically just flogging a dead horse.
It all comes, then, down to sour grapes by a cultural elite who has gone down the road of scholasticism, and does not know how to get out of their fix.
The answer, Paul Muldoon, is Joy Division.
What this means, is that, if you wish to know how to start writing poetry again, you need to write about things that people actually want to read about – that they actually care about, and to be intelligent, philosophical, sensitive, but, at bottom, humane. Poetry was invented by Greeks, and was reborn in the Renaissance. It is a product of humanist culture, and of democracy. To have anti-humanist poetry, fundamentally anti-humanist in the sense that one could call a shopping list poetry as of 30 years ago, is basically the oxymoron which calling a shopping list “poetry” always was, and always will be. (These same arguments, by the way, hold for twentieth century painting and architecture, and classical music, equally well).
So, until the “professional poets” rejoin us, and begin to make things which move us, which make us feel, and flow, then we will take Joy Division over them.
This leads us to one final issue: Can poetry really thrive in the era of the phonograph (i.e, the recording device)? Can people ever, once again, develop ears for poetry without music, when the music itself can be so obviously powerful, such a strong component for the poetic sentiment (e.g., in The Drowning Man)?
I would argue that, yes, this can be done, and people would be willing to do it, if only our princeton and oxford-perching poets would get their heads out of their arses, and stop writing about “rinky dink tink tinks,” and write some lines that actually arrest our attention: you might start with something like:
“Five years have passed; five summers…,”
“As virtuous men pass mildly away…”
“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come, and take me by the hand…”
These are all good starts.