What We Expect Of The Poet: Autonomy From Music (2015-07-11)
Music. Multimedia art makes fewer demands, and so naturally it is more popular. For example, movies are more popular than novels. And music with lyrics is far more popular than absolute music such as most jazz and classical. I should emphasize that this isn’t a criticism of multi-media work, the creation of which may in fact often be extremely demanding. And can be masterful.
A common mislabelling is the result of this prominence and popularity of music with lyrics: the lyrics are often called—and assumed to be—poetry. Occasionally they may be, but most often they are not. The test is to remove the lyrics from the music, to simply confront the lyrics on the page. If, for example, you can read the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song without playing the tune in your head, it is immediately apparent that it’s not good poetry. On the other hand, the lyrics of most of Tom Waits’ or Leonard Cohen’s songs clearly are poetry. Their songs are one art form, but it happens to be true that their lyrics alone are also another art form: i.e., poetry.
If Tom Waits had never written any songs and published a book of his lyrics it would be a book of poetry well worth our attention. And in the case of Leonard Cohen, he is a poet with numerous books of poetry, and many of his songs were the result of integrating his poems with music.
Hats off to those who can both write songs and poetry!