The question of the difference between song lyrics and poetry has a commonly assumed answer; one is set to music and the other is not. This, however, is a deceptively simple question and upon answering it I am immediately prompted to question why that makes them different. It is, for example, possible to write song lyrics down on paper as if they were a poem and similarly to assimilate poetry and music, creating something akin to a song. These complications then return us to the original question: of are poetry and song lyrics the same?
It does not require much research to realize that the mediums of song and poetry have a shared history, which can be traced back thousands of years to the tradition of oral poetry in Ancient Greece. The lyric poets of this time were almost always accompanied by a lyre and the affiliation between music and literature is acknowledged in the very fabric of the texts performed. Consider the opening line of the Odyssey (in the Robert Fagle’s 1996 translation) “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”, in which storytelling entails singing, blurring the distinction between what is today considered to be two very different endeavors. The oldest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Shijing, was a collection of songs and the troubadours of the Middle Ages gained renown for their lyrical work. Beyond this, the process of writing poetry and lyrics is often similar, both relying on particular conventions of rhyme, rhythm and form in order to deliver meaning. They are essentially both modes of expression which exceed the ability of normal speech to convey something; they are both vessels for inefficiency.
In music, the importance of refrain and repetition cannot be dismissed and some have used this to argue that writing lyrics diverges dramatically from poetry, suggesting that something written in the context of silence cannot be equated to something written for a melody. However, an increasing number of experiments in literature have accompanied poetry with music or performed poetry out loud and at the same the literary merit of song lyrics is being gradually recognised. Take Bob Dylan for example, who was the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, redefining what we consider ‘literature’ to encompass.
Despite this overlapping of boundaries, over time poetry and music have drifted apart and today, writing outside and across the borders of each genre is considered transgressive, revolutionary and sometimes contentious, when it does in fact point to an ancient past. Throughout my school days I studied poetry in English and song lyrics in music or history, confirming the division between the two. I am still haunted by a motley rendition of Hoe Emma Hoe in my year nine history lesson. Reluctantly performed by four pre pubertal students and accompanied by the desperate baritone of my teacher (probably on his fifth coffee of the morning) it did not perhaps have the intended effect. The intention, however, was not to admire the beauty of the lyrics (luckily, considering the aforementioned reasons) but to study the political implications and historical context offered by the song lyrics.
Another occasion finds me in an English class listening to a classmate ineptly stumbling over Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 whilst trying to analyze the effect of the language (which was in this instance a strong desire to fall asleep). There was plenty of talk about simile and metaphor but no mention of the poems ethnographic, anthropological or cultural locations. My point is, that somewhere in history, poetry cut ties with song lyrics, and the question that remains is whether they have irreconcilably evolved into different forms.
Another issue regarding how to distinguish lyrics from poetry which is brought to the fore by this anecdote, is the notion of high and low art. It is mostly poetry which is studied in classrooms for its literary merit, proffering the idea that it is somehow a higher form of art than song writing. I believe however, that it is absurd to try and diminish the intricacy and beauty of some lyrics simply because they have been created for a wide audience and therefore labeled as low art. Similarly, poetry is often stigmatized as being serious, adhering to formal structures and rhymes which are a marker of ‘literariness’ and this brings with it its own limitations. Countless times have I heard that ‘poetry is boring’ or ‘too hard’ or ‘impossible to understand’ and been made to feel somehow pretentious for liking it, but if I announced a love for Taylor Swift songs, I guarantee I wouldn’t face the same response.
There are many arguments for the difference between poetry and song, most notably the sung-not-read distinction which was summarized by poet and critic David Orr; “A well-written song isn’t just a poem with a bunch of notes attached; it’s a unity of verbal and musical elements”. Perhaps then, I reluctantly admit, that in today’s society there is a distinction between the two forms. I do this reluctantly however because it is also infinitely clear to me that within poetry there is music and within music there is poetry.
I would argue that all kinds of expression are poetry, and their craftsmen are equally deserving of praise. These biases which view poetry as ‘literary’ and songs as ‘popular’ are damaging to both genres because it pigeonholes them, excluding entire audiences from each before they have had a chance to experience the language itself. It would be better to view poetry and music as engaged in a dynamic conversation, equally able to produce both seriousness and joy, constantly informing the other, and neither possessing more value as a medium of art.