We should not forget that both in the West and in parts of the East (as in China), poetry was originally sung — so when we think of song lyrics, we are really thinking about poetry.
I have already said that some poems depend on musicality in use of word sounds and pauses for their effect; others are a combination of musicality and meaning; and yet others depend more on meaning than on musicality — in fact they may have little or no musicality.
Add to this the fact that in early days poems were sung, and you have the musicality of words combined with music itself — in short, songs that are sung, often with the accompaniment of a musical instrument or instruments.
We have to be very honest and admit that “poetry” in the sense in which we ordinarily think of it — the poems of high school English class textbooks, the poems of college anthologies and poetry journals — are today the poems of the very small minority. Compared to its popularity in the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, very few people are at all interested in poetry today. That is why the world of poetry and poets today tends to be a little, ingrown community, with the “published” poets often being those with “connections,” either academic or social.
The popular poetry today, however, is not that of the textbook or anthology, but rather that of the song — the “lyric.” So in a sense society at large has abandoned conventional poetry as largely uninteresting, and has gone back to the old sense of the poem — poetry as song — though it is often not thought of as a poem simply because it is “sung,” not “spoken.”
Poetry — the conventional “read” or “spoken” kind — is not dead at present, but it is certainly far from healthy. But poetry that is sung continues to be lively –only it is often not recognized or spoken of as such. Given that today we write out and speak many old poems that were once sung, it is rather paradoxical that so many fail to recognize much that is sung today as poems.
A few years back, when Joni Mitchell wrote (and sang):
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me: “All romantics meet the same fate, someday —
Cynical and drunken,
Boring someone in some dark cafe,”
“You laugh,” he said,
“You think you’re immune —
Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon!
You like roses, and kisses
And pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies….”
she was writing (and singing) poetry. Even without the music, the lines are musical, with interesting rhyme — “’68,” “fate” “someday,” “cafe.” And the poetry is effective and true:
“You want roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies.”
Now ask yourself, why should Joni Mitchell not be numbered among the poets of the 20th century? Why is she not in college anthologies, when other, lesser writers of the period are?
Or look at these lines, from another Joni Mitchell poem/song:
People will tell you where they’ve gone —
They’ll tell you where to go;
But till you get there yourself you never really know.
Where some have found their paradise,
Others just come to harm;
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
Very effective; very meaningful. And for sheer poetry and musicality, one can choose most any stanza from the same poem/song “Amelia,” such as:
A ghost of aviation,
She was swallowed by the sky —
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly —
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms —
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
Any poet would be proud to have come up with lines like,
“A ghost of aviation, she was swallowed by the sky…,”
“Like Icarus ascending on beautiful, foolish arms….”
It really is amazing when one reads — or better yet, reads and hears — Mitchell’s poems/songs. There is no sound reason why they should be excluded from anthologies of modern poetry.
And it is not just in English that we find that poetry accompanied by song often exceeds the poetry that is merely written or spoken. Often the poem/song is surprising in its effective simplicity. Take for example the verses of Jeanine Deckers, the Belgian one-time nun called paradoxically “Soeur Sourire” (Sister Smile), whose life had a tragic end:
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur sur la plage,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans un
Petit bateau sur l’eau,
Petit bateau sur l’eau
Vogue mon âme
Vers le Très-Haut.
How much it loses when we give up the musicality of the French rhyme for the plain meaning — but nonetheless it is still poetry in its childish simplicity:
I found the Lord on the beach,
I found the Lord in a
Little boat on the water,
Float — float —
Little boat on the water,
Float my soul toward the Most High.
She continues with wonderful, simple, clean lines such as:
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la brume,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la
Rosée des dunes.
I found the Lord in the mist,
I found the Lord in the
Dew of the dunes.
And so her songs/poems go — childlike and simple, often remarkably happy and rhythmic. It is still a joy to listen to them. And when one does listen, one begins to see how dry and comparatively, lifelessly “intellectual” many of the poems chosen by academics as worthy of remembrance are, and how many more genuine poems are daily being overlooked or forgotten. At least forgotten by those who write the poetry journals and compile the anthologies.
But the real poetry of modern times — the poetry people know and remember — is often found not in those publications, but instead in the poems/songs, as we see in the words of Eric Benet:
It’s the same old song;
We’re just a drop of water, in an endless sea;
All we do
Just crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see;
Dust in the wind —
All we are is dust in the wind.
These poems/songs are not in every case what we might want to write or read as poetry. Much that is heard today deserves to be quickly forgotten, in fact much deserves never to be heard at all. But among them we also find much that is poetry — and sometimes very good poetry — and that is something we should and must recognize. There is no point in false, “intellectual” or academic snobbery when such effective verse speaks (and sings) for itself.