Lyrics and Poetry

Originally posted on April 29, 2011 at 2:15 PM

I think we’ve all said (or at least heard people say) things along the line of, “It was music to my ears,” and, “Pure poetry,” often even in the same breath. The use of these two phrases in such a similar way imply a mental connection between lyrics and poetry. But at the same time, the very existence of the two words proves that they also hold distinct differences, much like the words “horror” and “terror.” Otherwise, why have both?

Clearly, this discussion of the similarities and differences of lyrics and poetry will be unavoidably one-sided, as I am a poet and not a musician. I will, however, try my best to make the conversation fair and thoughtful. If you’re on the other side of things and see something I missed, please jump in! defines “bard” as “(formerly) a person who composed and recited epic or heroic poems, often while playing the harp, lyre, or the like.” So originally, lyrics and poetry were pretty much the same thing, when you get right down to it – words spoken, sung, or chanted to music. But now, in my perspective, the biggest divide is oral/aural vs. visual.

When books became prevalent with the advent of the printing press, poetry gradually became more of a written form while lyrics retained their oral tradition. Over time, poetry has become almost entirely dependent upon the page (or these days, computer screen), despite poetry enthusiasts’ best efforts (slam poetry, podcasts online, and traveling poets). Meanwhile, lyrics to music are almost solely heard these days; one has to look up lyrics if he/she wants to read along. With digital music’s near-destruction of the physical CD, we don’t even have easy access to CD-case booklets with printed lyrics anymore.

What does this mean for poets and lyricists? Well, for one thing, it means poets have begun to put more importance on the visual aspect of the words on the page. Free verse has experimented with spacing, word shapes, and alignment. Shape poems and word art have cropped up and gained in popularity. Line length and punctuation have taken on more importance than ever. All because we poets now know that the vast majority of our audience will never hear our voice; they will only read our words. And as for lyricists, I can’t quite fathom the change, if there is one. Maybe in composition? Less writing down and more singing different things aloud to see if they “work”? I would argue that poetry has made the greater deviation here, as lyrics have always been sung first and written later.

Poets and lyricists – switching to the artists here, rather than the art – have a lot in common as well. Both are abundant, consisting of everyone from novices practicing their hobbies to experts getting paid the big bucks. Music is definitely more popular. I imagine that the music industry makes at least 100 times the profit of the poetry industry, if not more. Both are quite hard to break into, and are usually done for the love of the craft. Both are artistic endeavors that require a considerable amount of natural skill, dedication, and practice.

Do successful lyricists ever not know how to write music? I don’t know. I know there is crossover, and it must at least sometimes be successful, although I can’t think of an example off the top of my head. (Can anyone think of a popular song that started off as a poem, or vice versa?) I used to write lyrics before I realized that without knowing how to write the music to go with them, they were… well… poems with too many repeating stanzas. lol. And I know from Jewel as an example that not all lyricists (no matter how fabulous – and I do love Jewel) can convert to good poets. So what is it that makes the two crafts different?

They both employ rhyme. Lyrics tend to employ more slant rhyme (also known as near rhyme), because when you’re listening you worry less about full rhyme than when you’re reading. Assonance is very popular in music, whereas consonance is preferred in most forms of poetry. But there are two big differences that I can think of.

1) Song writing requires more skill sets (before you stone my house: please note that I said skill sets, not skills. I truly believe that musicians and poets are equally skilled.) In other words, poets don’t have to know how to write or read music, play instruments, or sing. (I’m also not talking about knowledge. Both fields require their own sets of knowledge. For example, most lyricists probably don’t know most of this.)

2) Poetry – at least form poetry – requires more knowledge and adherence to the rules of rhyme, meter, line length, etc. For example, a lyricist can stretch one word out to cover five syllables so that their end rhyme falls in just the right place. They can choose to emphasize a certain word or syllable to get their point across. They can also skew the pronunciation of words so that non-rhyming words suddenly sound rhymed. Written poets really can’t do that – and if we do, most other poets would call it “cheating.” In that way, it seems that poetry is more demanding. (Also worth noting: the music behind the words greatly affects the lyrics. Poetry can’t rely on music to set a tone or provide a contrast, but lyricists have to take this factor into account as they write.)

Both forms employ repetition, although lyrics tend to repeat whole stanzas (refrains and choruses) while most traditional poetry forms repeat specific lines or phrases. I think the closest place of crossover in today’s American culture is probably with slam poetry (free-verse, sometimes rhymed, spoken with attitude) and rap (which is essentially free-verse, sometimes rhymed, sung or rapped with attitude).

In the end, I suppose the discussion of lyrics vs. poetry is similar to that of literary vs. commercial fiction. You can quibble over wording, argue about blurred lines, and point fingers all you want, but the truth is that they are distinct entities, that they do sometimes cross over, and that this is not a bad thing. We may occasionally struggle to pin down definitions for the two, but one thing remains always and maddeningly true: we know it when we see it.

Are there any artists out there who are equal parts lyricist and poet? I would love to get your take on things. And what do the rest of you think? Am I being obtuse, or is it true that we know the differences between lyrics and poetry even if we struggle to delineate them?

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  • Rick

    Annie, great write up. I’m a writer stuck somewhere in between poetry and lyrics. My love of music almost demands that I strive on to become a lyricist, but my basic skills with instruments seems to force me into the reality of poetry. I’m constantly trying figure out ways to attract band mates to help the music come along, but in order to put myself out there (with more than words on a page), I need to learn some basic music composition strategies. Music is so fluid and susceptible to change as fellow musicians provide revisions or alternative paths for the work, so I struggle with how much emphasis I should place on the musical backing to my lyrics/poem. The dream is to find a song writing partner who digs my lyrical/poetic vibe and whose musical vibe is dug by me. Thanks again for considering and sharing your words on this “crossover.”

    • Hm, that is a tricky spot to be in. I wish I had some advice for you, but I know almost nothing about writing music, etc. All I can say is: don’t give up! Keep writing as you look, and I hope you find the perfect fit soon.