Music as Poetry

I find a lot of solace in the sounds that come out of my headphones. Coming back to Geneseo has been something I long awaited during the summer, and the moment I arrive back, things start to go downhill. Not due to any forces that I can control, things just happen sometimes. And when those things happen, music is something that always soothes the mind, induces tears, and brings me the strength to show up to class.

Music is, in a sense, poetry. Especially to some artists who really work to create lyrics that mean something. For example, lets take a look at Elliott Smith.

Smith was a deeply troubled individual, and of course his lyrics reflect that. Songs like “Between The Bars” that discuss heavy alcoholism, “Say Yes” with regret upon past relationships, and even the poppy “Baby Britain” carries heavy, dark overtones. Some lines can be blatant, outright, such as “situations get f*cked up, but turn around sooner or later” from “Say Yes”, but there are some lines that hit harder, and are very poetic. Like this verse from his song “Rose Parade”

Tripped over a dog in a choke-chain collar, people were shouting and pushing and saying they’d “traded a smoke for a food stamp dollar” as a ridiculous marching band started playing”

While it paints an incredibly intense picture, it also shows an underlying confusion of the speaker, and the hilarity that is occurring around the speaker as they try to make sense of everything. While it’s not the most happy lyric, it does a lot of work in terms of setting a scene, characterized the speaker, and creating an event that can carry on through the rest of the song.

I find Smith to be incredible not just because of his instrumentalism, but I am always impressed by the complexity of his lyrics. He studied philosophy and political science at Hampshire College, which perhaps help to explain just how he is able to take grand ideas and put them into lyrical form that not only tells a story, but makes a point. His troubled beginnings also add to this, as Smith was abused as a child and was an addict for most of his adult life. He suffered depression and committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest (although this fact as been disputed with an argument towards him being murdered by his girlfriend at the time). These factors come together to help him create songs that hit hard, especially for one such as myself who has suffered from depression for most of my young life, thankfully not so much anymore. But even if you’ve never experienced depression, you can still connect to his music; thats how talented Smith is.

While there are many other artists who show this type of lyrical genius (KT Tunstall, David Bowie, Kendrick Lamar, Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys off of the top of my head), Smith serves as a great example for the combination of poetic verse and music, as any one of his songs can be separated from the musical component and stand on their own as great pieces of poetry. It is an interesting exercise for poets to work with.

One Reply to “Music as Poetry”

  1. These musicians are interesting examples that beg the question of where the blurry divide between music and poetry can be found; remember, as we mentioned last class, poetry is at the intersection of music, visual art, and thought, or what Ezra Pound called melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia, using Greek terms.

    I like your point about instrumentality being a key part of Smith’s work; it doesn’t make the lyrics any less poetic, but it does remind us there are other elements a song has that a poem doesn’t. And the same is true vice versa: what can we see in a poem (not just its shape, but the way the eye can see connections between words the ear can’t hear)? The two art forms also have a different relationship to time: a song can be rewound, but that’s a break/interruption; as listeners, we generally have to accept it keeping going even if we can’t keep up. (Many songs repeat lines to handle this exact feature, making sure the listener can follow.) The poem, while it might seem to want to keep going down the page, doesn’t have the same control; a reader can go in more directions. That’s why repetition works differently in song than music.

    Also, your post makes an interesting companion’s to Laura’s this week…it’d be interesting to have you two comment on each other’s posts from your own perspectives. You’re both asking about what makes poetry, poetry, after all.

    Great post; some others on this blog over the years have explored this topic, so you might consider searching for music to see what they’ve had to say and responding if you do a part two!

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