Not convinced that song lyrics can be poetry? Minnesota’s own Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature—doesn’t that settle it? While not all song lyrics are lyrical, when, by the power of irresistible attraction, music and words come together, there is some kind of powerful lovin’ going on. It’s like poetry kisses music and something stellar is born.
Poetry in music doesn’t have to take itself seriously—it doesn’t have to be Literature backed up by a full orchestra. Pop music is poetic, too, Adam Bradley, the author of The Poetry of Pop, says. “Poetic tools of sound, meaning, and feeling are at work in even the most banal pop song just as they are at work in even the most trite ode or sonnet.”
But who wants banality? These 6 songs work in the same way good poems do, acting on our imagination through form, sound, and rhythm, to make us feel powerful emotion, to connect us to the truth of meaningful human experiences.
1. Song lyrics can woo us like
Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness:
2. Song lyrics can devastate us by unfulfilled expectations, by withholding information from the story, like love is too often withheld by family, by society, or by those who leave us through abandonment or death. There are so many words, but so much disconnection between speaker and hearer, and so much grievous loss in
Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joel:
3. Song lyrics can plant visions in our brain that remain and remain, like
Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence does:
4. Song lyrics can even conscript the worn out cliches that perpetuate injustice, then repeat them to expose their deception, and then turn them on their heads to empower oppressed people,
as Lauryn Hill does in Everything is Everything:
5. Song lyrics can lead us onward when the situations life hands us are impossible to live with, and seemingly impossible to leave. There are songs that navigate through and beyond paralyzing grief, like
Tobacco Road by Common Market
6. And song lyrics can help us make something out of our losses, large and small, the way Bob Dylan makes a songwriter’s missed encounter with an alluring woman into another song.
Bob Dylan’s Eternal Circle :
Lyricists use form, sound, rhythm, and rhyme–the same tools as poets. Great lyrics incorporate other poetic devices, too, like allusion, alliteration, and metaphor. When a song is successful, its melody works to reinforce and enhance the poetry, to help us experience and express the meaning—the profound, ecstatic, absurd, silly, sad mystery–of being human.
Minnesota is home not only to Bob Dylan, but to many other excellent lyricists, too. You can learn more about them here: