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Blog - Kilimanjaro is Taller than Olympus, David 

March 18, 2020


Are song lyrics poetry?   Bluntly, I'm not sure.   There is definitely overlap and lyrics are more like poetry than they are, say, novels, but I would probably err on the side of.... Sort of????  Which is to say I'm not picking a side at all.


I usually think of poetry and songs as having a content component and a form component: both what it is said and how it is said.  The what is the ideas behind the words, and the how is the meter, the flow, and the structure of the lines.  Fumbling either one can leave a poem or a song less than it could be.  




Song lyric structure is simultaneously more and less restrictive than on the page poetry.  The conventions for modern songs aren't as formal as say, a sonnet, or a villanelle, or haiku, which can make songs theoretically free-er than any poetic form except blank verse, but they do have an inescapable restriction which poems don't.


The logic of a poem's line structure comes from the words that are chosen and the purely intellectual construct the author wants to impose.  A song's poetic line structure has a logic imposed by a tangible element that comes from outside the words themselves.   Lyrics are locked in time to the rhythm of the song's melody.   A poem's words have a creative contract with whatever form the author decided on;  a lyric has to accommodate the melody.


I think this is why most songs don't scan well devoid from the music.  Lyrics on a page usually don't feel or sound like poetry in and of themselves.  I suppose this is similar to how a screenplay, which is part of a larger movie text that includes cinematography, score, and acting, doesn't read the way a novel would.   Lyrics, like a screenplay, are necessarily missing something.


Poetic stylings vary a lot over time and across languages.  Old English* poetry didn't rhyme but instead used alliteration.  Ancient Greek poetry was poetry purely by meter, by the arrangement of long and short syllables in a line.  Arabaic and French poetry pretty much always rhymed but they (particularly French) have different standards of what constitutes "good" rhymes.    Sometime during the time when Old English was getting infused with French and Latin to become Middle and then Modern English it picked up rhyme as its most obvious poetic signifier.


*The Pre-11th Century or version of English which is unintelligible to us now.  Think Beowulf:


Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 

Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, 

monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, 

egsode eorlas.


You can see the alliteration in it, even without knowing what it means. (Whatever letter þ is sounds like an f).   Also, fun fact:  Thomas Jefferson studied Old English because of course he did.  F*cking nerd.


In songs in English, rhyming is such a conventional technique in lyrics that I probably don't even need to point it out.  It's the easiest way to telegraph that you're trying for "poetry" but in a rhyme poor language like English it's really easy to fuck up.    "Identical rhymes" in English (like "cat" and "hat") are hard to sustain in a piece of writing of any length and stretching the language to get an identical rhyme is a good way to write doggerel.  I think usually when an end rhyme feels off it's because the writer has sacrificed meaning just to make the rhyme fit.  It usually leaves me a little cold.


One example of a writer stretching the language too far is in the "Aerosmith" song "Crazy," right at the end of the chorus:


"What can I do? I feel like the color blue."


I like the song, but that line always makes me cringe.  Especially in comparison with the earlier internal rhymed line "You turn it on, then you're gone, Yeah you drive me crazy" which I really like.  


But that one line, no matter how much I dislike it, is Pulitzer worthy next to the unholy rhyme-stew-nightmare-mess that is Train's "Hey Soul Sister," which features gems like:


"Your lipstick stains  / On the front lobe of my left side brains"


"Hey, soul sister ain't that Mr. Mister / On the radio, stereo"


"I'm so obsessed / My heart is bound to beat right out my untrimmed chest"


It's kind of too bad.  I think I would really like that one if the lyrics weren't so... let's go with "random."


Rhymes can also affect the flow of a lyric.  Internal rhymes tend to speed up the feel of the line, while end rhymes tend to close off lines and halt them.   Especially in a rhymed couplet they can act like emphatic punctuation.  Several in a row can give a section of a song a really staccato feel with each line feeling like a completely separate thought stapled together which, if motivated, can work.  But usually to me it doesn't.   


You can hear this in the verses of Beemo's song "Just Wait," where the combination of an identical rhyme sound and the nature of the "ing" sounds closes off each line and gives them (to my ear) kind of a hacked together start-stop flow.  


You don’t know what to say so you say nothing

The daylight bathes your face won’t you feel something

If you turn away you won’t see that door creep open


Also, ending all those lines with weak syllables ("ing" and the "en" of "open") makes each separate line trail sort of trail off.  (Full disclosure: I wrote the lyrics to this song, and honestly I think it's not my best effort.  The staccato trail off effect can be a good one if used with intent, but I didn't really do it on purpose.)  


Nowadays, I tend to write either with a mix of identical rhyme and approximate rhyme (vowel sounds at the ends of lines are close but not exact) or basically unrhymed blank verse.  


Barricades, for example, has mostly approximate rhyme in the verses and choruses:


Barricades - Verse:

Dawn breaks on a day that slips away

You drive off in a haze 

And all the thoughts fade to gray

It’s unfolding all the same

By the choices that you’ve made

But you blame it all on fate


Barricades - Chorus: 

At the slightest touch you turn away

You show your back to those reaching in

You’ve wrapped yourself in barricades

Of course the quiet is deafening


Janice has a repeated end word on lines 2 and 4 of the verses, but is otherwise unrhymed.  


Janice - Verse:

Sets her jaw and pretends as she turns all the lights on

One more moment alone before it all starts again

How much longer until the knock from the doorway

Until it comes and she swallows her hatred again


Janice - Chorus:

Close your eyes and take a deep breath

Hold on to yourself for one more day

Close your eyes and dream your somewhere

Where the water is warm and the sun’s overhead


Light and Live in Me, the two songs whose lyrics I'm mostly happy with are almost entirely unrhymed blank verse.   


Long Sleep has mostly exact rhymes at the end of the verse lines ("trees", "leaves," "purrs," "stirs," "glen,""again") but I think I avoided the Just Wait problem by using stronger syllables that have end consonants that don't strangle the line ends by closing off the singers mouth entirely.  It's also a pretty short song.


Long Sleep - Verse

The sun streams through quiet trees

On heavy lids through the green leaves

The wind sighs and the river purrs

On stiffened limbs the sleeper stirs

On a cobwebbed bed in the tranquil glen

He shrugs off sleep and will rise again


(Yes, I'm likely overthinking this stuff but it's all things I keep an ear out for when I'm writing)




I usually think poetic/lyrical content as existing on two main axes, with imagery on one axis and diction (aka word choice) on the other.  The imagery of writing is on a spectrum from symbolic to literal and the diction from elevated to colloquial.   


One of my favorite poems of all time, "The Tyger" by William Blake, is what I would consider highly symbolic.  There's not a "plot," as it were, or a literal place where the action is happening.  It leaves an impression of a primordial and vaguely menacing setting, where the author imagines a fearsome beast being created, but evades an easy and precise description of its lines.  


The Tyger 

By William Blake 


Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 


In what distant deeps or skies. 

Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 

On what wings dare he aspire? 

What the hand, dare seize the fire? 


And what shoulder, & what art, 

Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 

And when thy heart began to beat, 

What dread hand? & what dread feet? 


What the hammer? what the chain, 

In what furnace was thy brain? 

What the anvil? what dread grasp, 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 


When the stars threw down their spears 

And water'd heaven with their tears: 

Did he smile his work to see? 

Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 


Tyger Tyger burning bright, 

In the forests of the night: 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


A song I might compare to this kind of symbolic and imagistic style really is something like Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," though the language is not nearly as elevated.   The song creates a distinct atmosphere but I would be hard pressed to tell you what any of it actually literally means.  And I have never heard anyone say they don't like that song because the words don't make sense.  They do make sense, they seem right together, they create a feel that works.  Even if I can't quite describe it.


From my own work I'd say "Light" is in an equivalent quadrant of the Image/Diction chart.  It's completely symbolic and uses the slightly elevated language I tend to favor in my songs.

(Please, please, please keep in mind I just mean equivalent in terms of the language used; I'm making no equivalence in quality)


A much more literal, but still elevated poem is "The Martyr" written by Herman Melville in 1866.  It was written about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and isn't subtle about its subject or the author's response to it.  It's quite a bit easier to parse than something like the Tyger and the narrator's grief and anger come through loud and clear.  It ends with the powerful repetition of the "chorus" and the ominous final line "Beware the people weeping when they bare the iron hand."



The Martyr

By Herman Melville


Indicative of the passion of the people 

on the 15th of April, 1865


Good Friday was the day

    Of the prodigy and crime,

When they killed him in his pity,

    When they killed him in his prime

Of clemency and calm—

         When with yearning he was filled

         To redeem the evil-willed,

And, though conqueror, be kind;

    But they killed him in his kindness,

    In their madness and their blindness,

And they killed him from behind.


              There is sobbing of the strong,

                   And a pall upon the land;

              But the People in their weeping

                                    Bare the iron hand:

              Beware the People weeping

                   When they bare the iron hand.


He lieth in his blood—

    The father in his face;

They have killed him, the Forgiver—

    The Avenger takes his place,

The Avenger wisely stern,

         Who in righteousness shall do

         What heavens call him to,

And the parricides remand;

    For they killed him in his kindness,

    In their madness and their blindness.

And his blood is on their hand.


                    There is sobbing of the strong,

                        And a pall upon the land;

                    But the People in their weeping

                                    Bare the iron hand:

                    Beware the People weeping

                        When they bare the iron hand.


I'd say "The Long Sleep" is the closest I've written to the Martyr's Literal/Elevated language.   (Same disclaimer as above).  It's a very straightforward and easy to understand song but uses language considerably more formal than I would ever speak in un-ironic conversation.


Most songs shade closer to colloquial rather than elevated.  To me there's something about spoken or sung language that makes pretension more eye-roll worthy.  I'll read and not particularly notice a level of elevation in the written word that would be exhausting to actually hear someone speak.  


My favorite example of weirdly elevated language to unintentional comic effect in a song is "Africa" by Toto.  It has one the most sublime and pretentiously hilarious song lyrics I've heard:   "I know that I must do what's right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti."   I love it.  (Bonus fact:   Height of Kilimanjaro:  19,341 feet    Height of Olympus 9,573 feet.  Maybe the line should be "sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a shittier version of itself above the Serengeti"?)


That line has got nothing on this except of Thomas Wilson's 1553 Art of Rhetoric, though:


Pondering, expending, and revolving with myself your ingent affability and ingenious capacity, for mundane affairs: I cannot but celebrate and extol your magnifical dexterity, above all other.  For how could you have adepted such illustrate prerogative, and dominical superiority, if the fecundity of your ingenie had not been so fertile, and wonderful pregnant.  


(WIlson was making a point about ridiculous language.  I hope.)


A super colloquial and literal poem is "Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams.  



This Is Just To Say 

By William Carlos Williams


I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold


Honestly, I don't have much to say about that one.  But it exists.  


The most colloquial song I've written is probably "Back Again."  And it's one of the most literal too; I doubt anyone would see or hear the lyrics and say "Huh. I don't get it."  I'd say "Back Again" is in the same quadrant as most songs you hear around.    You can do a lot with simple language and it's harder to sound pretentious when using nice single syllable words than when using mellifluous polysyllabic Latinate semiotics.  (See?) 


Actually, now I want someone to turn "This is Just to Say" into a song.  Just make the "Forgive me" stanza the chorus.   Please: someone do this and send it to me.   There's not enough songs about plums.



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