Poetry and Song: What’s the Diff?

What exactly is the difference, if any, between poems and song lyrics? The two clearly have a shared history and ongoing connection; some of the earliest poetry, after all, exists as hymns, and, as my 16-year old son likes to tell me, RAP is an acronym for “rhythm and poetry.” And didn’t Bob Dylan just win a Nobel Prize in Literature?

Aren’t poems simply lyrics that haven’t yet been set to music? Isn’t the only real difference that one text lays flat on the page and the other takes flight into song? No. I would argue that although poems and song lyrics are similar, in their conception, they are fundamentally different kinds of text. Writing poetry is different than writing song lyrics.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been fortunate to have composers “set” my words to music, and these collaborations have evolved in various ways. Most often, the poems came first, having a prior existence to their lives as song lyrics, but it’s also happened the other way—where I’ve been asked to write a text explicitly as song, or where I’ve revised an existing poem with the knowledge that it was transitioning into song. Here are some things I’ve noticed along the way:

Lyrics are contextualized

Lyrics occur within the context of musical elements: rhythm, melody, instrumentation, to name a few. Even the quality of a singer’s voice determines word choice when texts are commissioned and written explicitly as lyrics. I play and teach piano, and have often accompanied instrumentalists and vocalists, so my musical background no doubt influences my poetry, perhaps making it more lyrical or “music-like” to begin with. Still, when a composer approaches me about setting a poem into song, the musical context drives my choice of which poems to even suggest to him or her.

For example, a couple of years ago, California-based composer Garrett Shatzer, asked me to send him some poems to consider setting for Mireille Asselin. Before I sent him examples, I listened to some of his earlier compositions, as well as to recordings of Mireille singing. His compositional style, her tone and vocal qualities, and the mood that we were “going for” in the new song determined which poems I sent to Garrett for review and which poem he ultimately selected to set. However, as I then reconsidered the poem in light of it becoming song, I revised and tweaked the text, omitting words and phrases that might be difficult for a singer to enunciate, adding others with vowels that Garrett might extend in order to showcase Mireille’s vocal flexibility. The musical context drove the lyrics.

Sometimes “poems” are lyrics in disguise

Less often, I’ve realized I’d written poems that were better suited as lyrics. For example, I wrote an ekphrastic poem in response to Harvey Dunn’s “May Street” in which I chose words with the sonic texture of Dunn’s brush strokes. It began “This poem needs luscious sounds” and contained layer after layer of words like “diaphanous” and “luminescence” and “luxurious, sumptuous, salaciously.” The text was fun to read aloud—all the syllables and sibilants tumbling around in my mouth–but, honestly, it lacked a controlling metaphor, so didn’t quite live up to the claim of being a poem. The text was just words playing around on the page until Aaron Ragsdale set it to thick harmonies for a women’s choir. Suddenly, what I had conceived of as poetry, clearly came out as song. Here, the musical context elevated the text, making of it more than it could have been alone. You can hear the song at about minute 33 of the full staged performance:

Poetry is metaphor

The big difference between song lyrics and poetry, as I see it, can be summed up by the concept of metaphor—the claim that this is really that. Yes, song lyrics can, and often do, contain metaphors (Think: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”), but poems do more than merely contain metaphors; at their best, poems are metaphors—recreating emotion and images. Unlike song lyrics, which might be understood as mini-narratives (“Let me tell you about my achy-breaky heart.”), at their most basic element, poems are metaphors. Their texts claim “My experience is your experience” and “What once was, now still is.” Unlike song lyrics, poems take flight from the page unaided—without glissando or cymbals or glass-breaking trills. In poetry, the vulnerable language itself must weave metaphor, must be wings.

Photo by Jackson Romie, sourced via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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