Saturday, December 27, 2008

Poets Have a Blind Spot About Music

(Note: This is a bit of a rant, about one of my pet peeves. Deal with it, or move on.)

There's an area in which many poets I have encountered have a serious blind spot—something that just gets you blank stares—and that is that songwriting is not poetry. Songwriting is songwriting; poetry is poetry. They are not the same art, and poets conflate them to their critical and artistic peril. There's a point at which poets claiming certain singer-songwriters to be poets becomes absurd; of course, one aspect of the absurdity is because the critical faculties seem to dissolve whenever fandom gets involved, or the cult of personality. Any time you hear someone claim Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan to be a genuine Poet, think carefully, and be suspicious. I realize this is heretical in many circles. But it's the truth. It takes nothing away from their accomplishments as singer-songwriters.

There are two sides to this blind spot:

First, far too many poets, because they are biased about words being their own artform and means of communication, don't give the music enough credit for making the song work. Far too many poets completely forget that adding music to words takes them both to another level, a synergistic level. Songwriting is not poetry, and the songwriters whose lyrics work on the page, as poems, are few and far between. I would argue that one or two individual songs by certain songwriters do achieve the on-the-page poem criterion, but not very many. And certainly most songs do not, even good songs.

In truth, a great song is a great song because it's a synergy of words-and-music, in which both words and music rise to a higher level than either could alone. Synergy: when additive elements create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You cannot separate the words from the music, in a great song—although this is exactly the mistake far too many poets get stuck in. In a great song, the words and music are indivisible: they are one whole.

Most readers don't realize that when they read they song lyrics on the page, especially song lyrics they know and love well, because they well love the song the lyrics are part of, they are still playing back the melody somewhere in their minds, as they read the words. Pay attention to what is going in your mind when you read lyrics on a page: this is exactly what happens. It underlines how the words and music in a great song are not separable.

Second, far too many poets give song lyrics a quality pass. The truth is, song lyrics can get away with some clichés and tropes that purely-page-poetry cannot abide; up to and including clichéd rhymes. The reason that song lyrics can get away with this more than page-poetry is because of the music.

Now, the expectations for songwriting are different than for page-poetry. The needs are different. So, in truth, some clichés in songwriting, and the tendency towards end-rhymes, are legitimately given a pass, sometimes. This is because the music makes it work. The music, and the way the song is sung, makes all the difference.

The vast majority of song lyrics cannot survive a reading-only on-the-page silent internal performance. The vast majority of song lyrics, even from great songs, contain familiar tropes and patterns long since abandoned by formal, "pure" poetry. Even though song is the root of "fine art" poetry, in the same way that dance tunes are the root of many genres of music, once you separate poetry as its own artform, and music (wordless or instrumental music) as its own artform, then they must be considered as such.

I say this as a composer, performer, and occasional songwriter. I say this as an award-winning, credentialed composer and songwriter, who knows what the heck he is talking about: when the words and music come together, both are improved, both are enhanced, and both are made better than they were alone. Singing a poem is a very different experience than reading it, either silently or out loud. The music is what makes the difference. It is the combination of words-and-music that makes a song a song. Again, this is made evident by the failure that happens when they are broken apart: you cannot read the words on the page, as a poem, without hearing the associated music in your mind; and you cannot hear an instrumental version of the song without wanting to sing the words along. They can't be broken apart.

I know that I'm repeating myself. This is necessary, because you can say this over and over again to some poets, and you still get The Blank Stare. It just does not sink in with them.

The truth is, I have taken a lot of crap about my opinions on this—and most of that crap has frankly come from poets, who don't know anything about songwriting and some of whom are quite non-musical. (And perhaps who should know better than to opine outside their zones of actual knowledge.) I genuinely believe this to be a poet's blind spot. It's like asking some dancers to be verbally articulate: they can't do it; they have a serious blind spot about non-kinesthetic media, and to respond to your questions they'll move rather than talk—or move while they talk. It's like trying to get a fish to breathe air: struggle all they will, they can't make the shift.

The truth is, those of us who work in more than one artistic media, or who work in synergistic media such as songwriting, or multimedia video, or performance art, deal with these kinds of blind spots all the time. One can come to resent how much time and energy gets wasted defending one's experiential knowledge against the ignorance of the self-declared (theoretical) experts. Some few of whom are little more than critical bullies.

One does not have to be a musician or composer to appreciate music—but one does gain a deeper understanding of the musical process if one actively participates rather than passively observes. Even something as mundane and universal as singing along with your favorite music in your shower or in your car will bring you insights about song structure and form that you will never get from simply reading the song lyrics as words on the page. Yet, many poets think they know about songwriting from simply reading the song lyrics as words on the page. They think they understand. They don't.

Music is not an intellectual art. It is a somatic art. Singing involves the entire body: the breath, the muscles, the ears, the eyes, the skin. You can feel your own voice vibrating your flesh, resonating in your chest, throat and head. You feel music in a way that reading words does not recreate. The best poetry, I am convinced, is likewise somatic: it engages the whole person, and creates an experience in the reader's body and self that can be powerful, even life-changing. Great art is not an intellectual experience only: it is a full-body experience.

Music takes words to another level. Singing even simple words—the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, for example, or the famous song Amazing Grace—is moving in a way that engages the whole self on all our various levels.

Listening to music is immersive. Sound is omnidirectional. We hear binaurally, which we process into three-dimensional location by hearing differential echoes and resonances within an acoustic space. Sound is full-body, not unidirectional. We actually bathe in sound. The ears, the instruments of hearing, are sensitive to vibration not only from the air, but from the liquid and solid parts of the body that also transmit sound-vibrations. Our bones and flesh conduct sound vibrations even when our ears don't work. Even the deaf can feel the vibrations that sound makes in the materials that surround us.

Great songs also have something else that poets who are too verbally-biased overlook: the gaps. The phrases in the music where there are no words. The pauses between words. Great songs have silences—verbal silences, if not instrumental silences. There are pauses for breath. There are gaps in the flow of words. There are spaces of instrumental playing between the verse and chorus, and between strophes or staves. Ballad forms in song lyrics are usually broken into staves, each stave being a verse-plus-chorus. And don't forget the expressiveness of instrumental breaks: guitar solos, or improvs by any of the lead instrumentalists over a chorus of chord-changes. No words there. And any blues musician will tell you how the words matter, but they matter more when they are with the music; because in blues forms, the words are few, even sparse, and repetitious. What matters is their setting in the music.

Songs are not just words. Give that bias up! Songs are words-and-music. And the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Stop trying to break them down: it just does not work.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Seeing that I've wondered for years how one could better notate poetry it does surprise me that I've not written more songs. What has always amazed me about songs is their ability to raise often mediocre poetry to great heights. Cohen was a poet to start off with but he's very much the exception.

I don't get very excited when I look a Bob Dylan's lyrics as poetry but then neither do I get all worked up over Emily Dickison's poetry set to music.

The best songs - for me - are where words and music were written to compliment each other. Songs are not inferior to poems, they are their own thing.

3:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's nice that you, as a poet, get exactly what I'm talking about. You're absolutely right about the music raising often mediocre poetry to greater heights. I think that's one of the keys of why songwriting isn't poetry, and isn't supposed to be measured in the same way(s). They are indeed their own things.

Thanks for that. I feel less like I'm shouting into a well, to get such a spot-on response.

1:43 AM  
Blogger mand said...

Speaking as a poet, i agree too. Songwriting is a skill i would love to acquire, and am gradually accepting i never shall. Even sadder now my son is becoming an accomplished guitarist and composer... but wants me to 'do the words'!

I do consider some of Billy Joel's and Suzanne Vega's lyrics to be poetry, though.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm all for collaboration; some of the greatest songs ever written were collaborative that way, one person writing the words, the other the music.

I'd agree with you about Joel and Vega. I'd add Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell to the list.

For me the criterion is: Do the song's lyrics also read effectively on the page, "purely" as poetry? If they do, if they can stand alone as poetry-without-music, then yes, they do work as poems. Most song lyrics aren't able to pass that test.

12:08 PM  

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