Poetry Month 2013: Musicians Who Are Published Poets
Are all song-writers poets? There is no question that music and poetry are connected, and song lyrics can often read like poems. But is there a difference between the two? Do lyrics need to be combined with music to fully communicate the song’s emotions? Some musicians who are published poets show that they do think there is a difference by choosing to write both: words to sing and words to say. In fact, Bob Dylan says: “anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”
Hopefully after looking at the writings of these 6 musician/poet double agents, we will be able to see if that rings true! And, since we’re already discussing him, let’s start with The Bard himself.
Bob Dylan: Tarantula
The American folk rock legend has penned a book of experimental prose poetry a la Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Tarantula opens “aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion wound would heed sweet soundwave crippled & cry salute to oh great particular el dorado reel & ye battered personal god” (a line from the book was voted by Spin magazine as the most unintelligible sentence from books written by rock stars). But,while Dylan’s book is no doubt interesting (and worth the read!), his song lyrics are actually more highly regarded as poetry: he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996!
Most poetic Dylan song? How could I choose just one?! I love this line from “Talkin World War III Blues”
“Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time”
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that .
John Lennon: In His Own Write
Another free-associative, improvisational, nearly nonsensical prose, poetry, and art book by a sixties rock demi-god. Similar in many ways to Tarantula, In His Own Write uses puns, misspellings, strange imagery and homonyms to create unexpected meaning and humor through linguistic play. The Times Literary Supplement calls it “worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and the British imagination.” (Incidentally, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, is releasing a book of poetry next month). Most likely, when you think of Lennon’s solo work, you think of Imagine, but it’s neat to see his very first solo project in these pages!
Most poetic Beatles song? Once again, how could I ever choose? I love the surreal imagery in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and, of course, “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Tupac Shakur: The Rose That Grew From Concrete
The Rose That Grew From Concrete is a collection of personal poems from the legendary hiphop artist which were only discovered and published after his tragic death. The book features 2pac’s handwritten poems (and scratch outs and corrections) placed side by side with their typeset counterparts and explores big themes like love, friendship, and prejudice. Some of the poems read like rap lyrics while others have a more diary-like flow. Some even reference icons and artists like Marilyn Monroe and Vincent Van Gogh! You can read a sample of the handwritten title poem here.
Most poetic 2pac song? Hmm, maybe “Hail Mary?” I love the lines “picture paragraphs unloaded/ wise words being quoted/ peeped the weakness in the rap game and sewed it”
Tom Waits: Hard Ground
Hard Ground is a book of poems by the gloriously gravelly-voiced Tom Waits in collaboration with photographer Michael O’Brien. It uses poetry and photography to create a portraiture of homelessness and the resilience of those who live “on the hard ground.” (See a preview of the book here). The long poem from the book, “Seeds on Hard Ground,” was also released as a chapbook to raise funds for homeless services and all proceeds went to The Redwood Empire Foodbank and Sonoma County’s Homeless Referral Services and Family Support Center. It’s really amazing how the written and visual imagery complement and even almost seep into each other in this poetic duet.
Most poetic Waits song? “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” The line “you’d bury the dagger/ in your silhouette” is so striking.
Patti Smith: Auguries of Innocence
The Godmother of Punk is actually quite a prolific poet. Smith published her first book of poems in 1972 and has since published many more including Auguries of Innocence in 2005, named after a poem by eighteenth century poet William Blake. The whole book is highly influenced by the great Blake’s style and contains interesting and evocative imagery. In her music, Patti Smith was known for combining rock with poetry and she has been very successful in both careers. Since the release of Auguries of Innocence, she has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame AND received a National Book Award!
Most poetic Smith song? I’d say “Kimberly”:
“Balls of jade dropped and existence stopped, stopped, stop, stop.
Little sister, the sky is falling, I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
Little sister, the fates are calling on you”
Leonard Cohen- Let Us Compare Mythologies
Leonard Cohen is of course one of the most influential song-writers of our time. But did you know he was a poet first? He has written hundreds of poems. (You can see many of his books here). In 1956, still an undergrad student, he released his first book of poetry, pictured here, Let Us Compare Mythologies. He followed it up with the critically acclaimed Spice-box of Earth which included poems like “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” poems which are just crackling with beauty.
The Academy of American poets describes his work as a “successful blending of poetry, fiction, and music… While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.” For those of you interested in reading more, the recent anthology, Stranger Music, brings together Cohen’s song lyrics and poetry in a bible-sized best-of which demonstrates his enormous range and eloquence.
Most poetic Cohen song? Oh, come on. “Hallelujah”
So, do you think there is a difference between song lyrics and poetry? Some would argue that a poem is music, while lyrics need music. But every music lover has a song they consider to be pure poetry. Tell us where you stand! We’d love to hear all about your take on poetry/music in the comments below!