Music for Poets
by Philip Hess
I reckon many of the best poets of our time are not writing poetry, per se, but rather song lyrics. But that’s been true for a while and I’m not just thinking here of Nobel Bob.
So how is that relevant to those of us who do write the actual thing, lines intended to stand naked without musical accompaniment and are generally not performed, or if performed then recited, rather than sung, and almost never recorded?
Besides the sheer fun of looking at song lyrics, doing so can be a good source of poetic ideas, as well as provide insights into the writing process.
For example, take the first few lines of the second verse of a Jimmy Webb song from half a century ago, “Wichita Lineman.” The lyrics you hear can vary a bit depending on who’s doing it, but here’s what Glen Campbell sang on the very first, best-known recording of this song, which appeared on his 1968 album of the same name:
I know I need a small vacation.
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain
This is a pop song, so even though the lines look like free verse, lines two and four are rhymed like any good pop song. And since it’s a country pop song, we get the almost-perfunctory “it don’t,” an ungrammatical construction that suggests how the speaker sounds, or perhaps how he sounds when talking to himself.
The approach here is similar to that of a persona poem, where the author writes in first person but takes on the identity of someone else, often from a different time or place or, in this case, occupation, “a lineman for the county.”
Former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith has said this about persona poems (on her podcast, The Slowdown):
I admire persona poems that resist the urge merely to mimic the speaker’s actual voice, the surface markers of place or class or time. Instead, the best persona poems attempt to dig deeper for a sense of character. They tap into the voice of feeling or thought, the way a person sounds when she’s not speaking, or when she’s speaking only to herself.
I think the character of the lineman is pretty evident. He’s a modest man; he doesn’t demand much. Note how he describes the vacation he needs as “small,” not the usual “short,” much less “long.” He’s also responsible: he can’t take time off unless the weather turns bad (rain) and only then if it’s not too bad (snow). And we can’t help but feel he’s also talking about himself, not just a stretch of wire, as being subject to strain.
Sometimes you can tell at a glance if the lines are from a poem or a song. For example, consider the famous opening of Wallace Stevens’ 1915 poem, “Sunday Morning”:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
Here the language gives away that the lines are from a poem. I would guess that if sung, “complacencies” and “peignoir” might go right past many listeners. In any case, what are “complacencies”? Sure, plural of complacency, but what does the word bring immediately to mind? And even if you’ve been out shopping recently for a negligee, would you recognize “peignoir” if someone sang it at you?
But what about these lines?
I used to love the mortician’s daughter
We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids
These happen to be the opening lines of Freedy Johnston’s 1992 song, “The Mortician’s Daughter,” but they certainly sound like they could also be the start of a confessional poem.
I could go on, but it might be better just to examine some song lyrics for yourself, while listening to how those particular words sound when sung.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are nine more-or-less randomly selected songs that run the gamut from spiritual to folk to punk, Shakespeare and film score. I’ve put them into roughly chronological order and included a representative line or two of lyrics (in italics). If you can’t make out a song’s lyrics, just search for them; the lyrics to just about every song ever written are out there somewhere on sites like MetroLyrics and others.
“Wade in the Water”. This 1965 recording by the Staple Singers might be the definitive version of this 19th century slave spiritual, with Mavis Staples’ distinctive voice rising over the voices of her family. I like how when she sings “A band of angels coming for me” she doesn’t really sing “angels,” just brushes over the word in passing. “He’s gonna trouble the water.”
“Go Down Moses”. Despite the YouTube poster’s claim, these are not the Fisk Jubilee Singers in this undated recording of another famous spiritual. It appears to be the French choir Les Petits Chanteurs de Montigny. But never mind that, the high voices over the piano are lovely. “Let my people go.”
“Diamonds and Rust”. Joan Baez hasn’t recorded many songs of her own, yet here she is in 1975 coming up with this gem. The lyrics are as good as we can hope to find in a pop song. A friend remarked that she had never heard anyone use “crummy” in a song. It’s hard to decide on a best line here, but “Then give me another word for it” should resonate with poets everywhere. “Well I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again.”
“Rebel Girl”. Feeling lethargic or irritable? Maybe you need a dose of this Bikini Kill song from 1993. Kathleen Hanna’s energy should get you back on a paying basis. Dance around in your underwear as needed, maybe pretend you’re playing a grungy Pacific Northwest bar or bowling alley in the early 90s. “In her hips, there’s revolution.”
“Man-Size”. This PJ Harvey 1994 video almost feels like a theater piece, filmed in black and white with lighting used for great effect, full of dramatic flourishes. Sung straight into the camera in an empty room, this is like nobody else. “Good Lord I’m big.”
“Sigh No More”. Many of Shakespeare’s plays include songs. Were they originally sung? Presumably, although the tunes are lost to us. Nowadays they’re often recited rather than sung in stage and film productions. But Joss Whedon set one of these songs to music for his 2012 film of Much Ado About Nothing. Here’s Maurissa Tancharoen singing Balthasar’s famous song about the inconstancy of men. “The fraud of men was ever so / Since summer first was leavy.”
“Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”. So-called alt-rocker Courtney Barnett is clearly enjoying herself in this 2015 street performance of her playful, witty song. “You’re saying definitely maybe. / I’m saying probably no.”
“Everything Is Free”. Courtney Barnett can also do acoustic folk in this beautiful 2018 performance of Gillian Welch’s classic 2001 song. “Everything I ever done / Gonna give it away.”
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. There are no lyrics in these songs from the iconic 1966 spaghetti western of that name, but composer Ennio Morricone used the human voice quite a bit: as a musical instrument, to create drama, and of course as chorus. Here are Tuva Semmingsen and Christine Nonbo Andersen in a 2018 performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
About the Author
Phil’s pseudonymous reviews of movies and other things appear occasionally at 10franks.com. He lives in (to borrow a phrase from William Gass) “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”