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Kat Eggleston: Blog

Lyrics as Poetry

Posted on June 23, 2011 with 3 comments

  If you happen to be on a mission to find a source of real contention in the music world, try putting five or six songwriters in the same room and throw out questions like these:  "Do you think of lyrics as poetry?  Do you think the listening public ever hears them that way? Do you approach your work as if you were a poet?"  You might throw a creative writing instructor and a few music biz movers and shakers into the mix for added heat, depending on whether you like your arguments mild or extra spicy.  Be sure to imply that the writer's answers will place them firmly on a sliding scale ranging from "Sellout" to "Pretentious Navel-Gazer."
  There are many artists who have spent time working in the Nashville publishing houses, some that have had a string of hits.  You'll get many of these who feel that the common listening public has such a diminished attention span that they have to be approached with soundbites in the form of "hooks," or the content of the song will be over their heads.  There will be a dollar figure attached to this judgement.  There are others with the same background, the same amount of hits, who will consider themselves serious poets at heart, and happily engage in a fistfight to prove their sensitivity.
  The truth is that nothing is entirely pure, and while a song is by definition carried by the human voice, some of them can be translated to the page without diminishing their literary impact.  Even in an academic setting, you could go as far back as Robert Burns to successfully illustrate this.  But the academic line of thinking has also published books of traditional Scottish ballads without including existing melodic lines, classifying them erroneously as "narrative poetry." This partial truth also aggressively misses the point.
  There is no universal answer.  Some hits have earned a truckload of money with a string of cliches.  As such, they are monetary giants, but they would be laughable if they were transferred to the page of a book or a magazine.  Finding examples of that are too easy. I rest my case with "Feelings."
But some writers (more recent than Burns) who do consider lyrics as poetry have produced popular songs that could fill a gorgeous book. Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, no argument there. And Joni Mitchell, as in "the Urge for Going":

Now the warriors of winter
They gave a cold triumphant shout
And all that stays is dying
And all that lives is gettin' out
See the geese in chevron flight
Flapping and racing on before the snow
They got the urge for going
And they got the wings so they can go

So, while you're enjoying the inevitable knockdown-dragout happening in the room full of musical experts, keep some perspective and remember that there are no easy answers.  Songwriting is still writing, with as wide a spectrum of form and character as a novel, a play, or in this case, a true poem.


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A few days ago my father said, "history is written by the winners." 

I said, "dad, you should listen to more traditional music."

Well.  The understood context of this remark - whoever said it originally - is that the larger and more lasting voice belongs to those who hold money and power.  It opens up Pandora's box with the use of the word "winner," implying that the poor and powerless won't be heard and remembered.  Traditional music is my favorite example of why this idea is a clever sounding lie.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to find myself sitting across a kitchen table from the great Scottish singer Sheila Douglas, trading old songs and forgetting that we'd come to the kitchen an hour before with the intention of making tea.  The electric kettle kept boiling and shutting itself off, and we kept on singing the saddest songs we knew for each other.  There are lots of big, sad songs.  I think the tea was eventually accomplished, but I don’t remember that.  In my memory, I don’t even hear the beauty and strength of her voice, although I know it was there.   What sticks with me is really bigger than all of that, because her singing was full of the voices of working people from centuries past.  Those people were alive again for the duration of the song.  I knew a little more about their lives than I had before.  Tea be damned. 

This is the substance of my love for traditional music, the reason I love the big ballads and such.  Singers like Sheila Douglas have brought history to the kitchen table. 

History is written by everybody, really.  But it's also sung, and by voices that aren't asking the question of who wins or loses, but are only doing their level best to tell the story. 


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