Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Seamus Heaney
    When people debate this issue, as they often do (i.e. "My favorite songwriter is a poet, for sure!"), they don't mean "poetry" in the technical sense of lyrics being verse which is, in turn, poetry (as opposed to prose).  No, they mean good, spoken/written poetry, like Shakespeare, Donne, Heaney or Maz.  Obviously, few lyrics rise to this level so let's lower the bar slightly.  What lyrics can work sans music or singing?

    In the course of a newslist discussion one of our followers came up with an interesting challenge that you may wish to try with some of your fellow onliners.  Type out the lyrics to a song that your counterpart will recognize and that you think would work at an open mike.  Put them into an envelope and mail them to each other.  Each of you then gets up in front of an audience, opens your envelope, and reads the poem aloud.

    Last night, my buddy opened his letter and, I'm told, smiled.  Being a Canadian and noting that the envelope would have been postmarked on December 30th or 31st, he really should have known what was coming.   

     At approximately the same time, a jillion miles away, I stood in front of a similar crowd and opened the missive.  I didn't smile, nor did I have the good grace to say "Well played, friend", as my opposite did.  Close, though.  My actual words were:  "Well played, you son of a bitch."

     Knowing that our group has a much longer time limit than his, my buddy had me perform this:

     I suspect my friend fared better onstage than I did.  He says he's not a good performer but that he is improving thanks to doing open mikes and joining a slam group (much to my surprise!).

     Do you know someone who needs some encouragement to get into performing poetry?  Consider this challenge.  It's fun!


  1. It's nonsense to suggest that a poem can only work as good poetry if it can stand the test of being spoken aloud. Just as some poems only work well on the page, so some poems work best when sung. Unfortunately the majority of poets seem to labour under the same misapprehension.

    Here's a sonnet of mine where an editor asked for both a recited and sung version:

    Unsurprisingly, most of the poets I heard from preferred the recited version, while non-poet friends preferred the sung version. Go figure.

    I wrote a blog post about this topic here:


  2. Good hearing from you again, DD. Just to be clear, the distinction being made here was not between two types of poetry (i.e. page versus stage) but between two types of staged verse (i.e. song versus recital).

    As you may imagine, I was intrigued by your experience with the two editors, especially the one who wanted to see your sonnet performed as a song and as a poem. Such progressive open-mindedness, while rare thus far, is encouraging.


Your comments and questions are welcome.