The Difference Between Poetry and Song Lyrics

What is the difference between poetry and song lyrics? I am often asked this question by students or casual readers of poetry. While it’s easy to give the answer that poems don’t have any music behind them and song lyrics do, that doesn’t really explain anything.

Many musical artists present their song lyrics as poetry. This reflects not a commercial move on their part, but a desire for the words they write to be taken seriously. It is certainly true that poems are taught (for better or worse) in classrooms and made a part of the canon of literature, whereas songs, especially popular ones, usually are not. If song lyrics are studied in school, often it is ethnographically or anthropologically, to learn something about a culture, not as literature per se. What I suppose some musicians want is not to be considered poets, but for their lyrics to be read with the same respect they imagine poems are.

It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.” But I also think the desire to consider lyrics as literature reflects some unfortunate and persistent biases that are detrimental to both poetry and song. This desire presumes that poems, because they are “literature,” must be serious, that is, written in forms that reflect obvious mastery of literary mannerisms (whether formal, like rhyme or metrical language, or something more elusive like elaborate fanciness of some kind). And it presumes that what is valuable about lyrics is how they reflect those literary values and skills.

These might not seem like big issues to a lot of poets and poetry specialists, who are familiar with poetry that has qualities of song lyrics, and vice versa. But people who are not as familiar with contemporary poetry do understandably make a distinction that on the one hand poems are “literary” and on the other songs are “popular,” i.e. written in a language regular people can understand.

The biases inherent in such a widespread distinction do a disservice to both poetry and song. By holding poetry to a literary standard, and either granting or denying that standard to song lyrics, we locate the worth of an artistic endeavor in the most superficial qualities of language, ones that are actually peripheral to what makes a poem worthwhile.

In fact, I do think there are important and fascinating differences between lyrics and poems, just not the ones that are usually focused on. Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’'s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.

As for the question of whether poems can function as song lyrics, the answer seems to be, in the right hands, absolutely yes. Just to take a few recent examples, Gabriel Kahane, Michael Zapruder, AroarA, Jason Collett, Eric Moe, and Missy Mazzoli (Victoire) have all set poems by contemporary poets to music, with exciting and gorgeous results. These composers recognize, it seems to me, the essential qualities of language in poetry. These musical artists use their considerable skill and sensitivity to design music that moves around and with the poems, never overloading them with musical information or tormenting them into overly strained forms to serve a musical structure, two of the most noticeable qualities of failed musical-poetic collaborations.

To say that this means song lyrics are less literary than poems, or require less skill or intelligence or training or work to create, is patently absurd (and, in the case of rap music, patronizing). But that does not mean that song lyrics are poems. They might sometimes accidentally function like poems when taken out of a musical context, but abstracting lyrics from musical information is misleading and beside the point. It seems to me far more productive to ask how lyrics in songs relate to musical information, and how poems relate to the silences (cultural and actual) that surround them, and to recognize that lyrics and poetry, while different genres with different forces and imperatives, have both more and less in common than we might think, and are endeavors of equal value.