Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is a Song a Poem?

Carrie Brownstein recently posted a music blog on NPR about how songs rarely translate well to paper. http://www.npr.org/blogs/monitormix/2009/07/drowned_in_sound.html  In other words, she's saying words aren’t quite enough; a song, unlike a poem, needs the musical accompaniment and singers to fully deliver it. Undoubtedly. These discussions over whether or not songs can be considered poems seem a bit squishy to me.  I should backtrack here and explain that I created and taught a class at Belmont University in Nashville called The Poetics of Song Lyrics. In that class, one of the first questions we discussed was about this issue: Is a song a poem? While they are linked genres for sure, I definitely see them as two genres. Songs have different audience expectations that—in commercial pop and country music at least—value clarity over obscurity, received form over open form, collective experience over private. Also, the musical instruments—which include the singers' voices—add a layer of emotional and intellectual connection that make a poet’s option of black type on white paper seem gimpy. What I found my students were often trying to argue was that songs were a high art—or could be—in the way that most poetry is considered high art. (And by the way, whoever is strutting around classifying this stuff into high and low is not on my high list.) These music lovers didn’t care for how poets tend to be regarded as Artists while songwriters are too often regarded as dribble-making machines with great make-up artists.


What I do find more interesting, however, than these genre/territory debates is to compare and contrast how poems and songs use the same techniques—such as rhyme or ballad form. I’ve been working on a collection of essays that delve into this exact issue and soliciting English professors and music reviewers alike to weigh in. One contributor, David Caplan, has an interesting essay coming out in Antioch Review that analyzes the history of rhyme and the way it has morphed in the hands of hip-hop artists. That’s the type of stuff that reveals the art in popular songs. 

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