Yes, Bruce Springsteen Counts as Poetry

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Most people would probably argue that “I love you” are the three most powerful words in the English language. At the risk of being a complete jerk, these people are wrong. The three most powerful words in the English language are: “Bruce Springsteen Live”. Given the fact that my iTunes regularly reminds me that I’m coming perilously close to hitting the 1,000 mark for some of the Springsteen songs I get stuck on repeat, and given the fact that I’m going to be spending a decent chunk of change for Springsteen concert tickets this summer, I feel the need to step and defend Springsteen’s work as being equal in quality to the poetry and fiction that we read in academic settings.

Of course, I could talk about how Springsteen’s work is filled with just as many literary allusions as that of any poet—he became obsessed with Flannery O’Connor in his mid-twenties and titled “The River” album after Flannery’s short story by the same name, and he claimed that the song “Nebraska” was inspired by the Flannery theme of “taking on the meanness in this world.” And in the ultimate sign of respect for Flannery, Springsteen wrote a song entitled “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. But it’s not just O’Connor that Springsteen fell under the influence of—there are elements of the Richard Lovelace poem “To Althea, From Prison” in his song “Living Proof.” Lovelace wrote the famous lines “Stone walls do not a prison make / nor iron bars a cage”,  but Springsteen answers several hundred years later with, “You showed me my prison was just an open cage / There were no keys, no guards, / Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.” Springsteen is well-read, and almost every song I hear from him draws some kind of parallel with a great literary work or offers a deep historical allusion of some kind.

But most of all, Springsteen manages to merge poetry and prose together in a highly unique way—he captures and condenses the strong narrative elements of prose by using a disciplined and creative vocabulary that encompasses the beauty of poetry. In fact, Springsteen is a modern-day Wordsworth in his ability to use common language to express emotion through unadorned lyrics—but whereas Wordsworth looks to nature for his inspiration, Springsteen finds his inspiration in the common man. How can you listen to a live 1978 performance of the song Racing in the Street and not “feel it” when Springsteen breaks into a guttural scream, crying out, “I got sick of waking up in a world that somebody else owns”? He captures this emotion equally well in the song Badlands when he shouts, “Poor man wanna be rich / rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.” These are great commentaries on class struggle and the link between ownership of one’s soul and the ownership of material goods, and I absolutely believe these lyrics are as good as anything a traditional poem might offer.

But Springsteen also captures the mystique that often seems to be a prerequisite of good poetry. T.S. Eliot once remarked that if he understands something the first time, it can’t be much good. Eliot’s point was that it is best to feel a poem before understanding it. That’s how I feel about the lyrics in the song Jackson Cage, “Every day ends in wasted motion / Just crossed swords on the killing floor / To settle back is to settle without knowing / The hard edge that you’re settling for.” This strikes me as a perfect example of what Eliot’s talking about—you feel something happening as you listen to these lyrics, but yet it’s difficult to pinpoint it with any type of exact precision.

But there’s a playful side to Springsteen as well that captures the spirit of an independent youth, and I don’t want my commentary to neglect that aspect of his music. He tells his lover in No Surrender, “We learned more from the three minute record baby / than we ever learned in school.” But it’s not just dialogue where Springsteen expresses his playfulness; he does it in his descriptions as well, such as the opening verse of the song Jungleland, “There’s a barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” And he ends the song Spirit in the Night with the howling sound “Me and crazy Janie were making love in the dirt / Singing our birthday sooooong.” I love Springsteen’s versatility in this regard—he can shift from talking about broken dreams to pranking a lover within a verse, and this is yet another part of what makes his work so poetic.

Sometimes, I get asked to give an example of Springsteen at his best—the moment when his lyrics are so overwhelmingly good that I can have that “Q.E.D” moment in my argument—and my honest answer is that it can’t be done. You don’t regularly ask parents what child is their favorite; you shouldn’t ask Springsteen fans what song is the best. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s take a look at the poetry that can be found in the last verse of “Backstreets” that I’d be semi-comfortable resting my case on:

“Laying here in the dark you’re like an angel on my chest
Just another trampled heart crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, Terri, we’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time we find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
We swore forever friends, on the backstreets until the end.”

Obviously, the only way to do this right is by listening along, and you can do that by clicking on this link:

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4 Responses to Yes, Bruce Springsteen Counts as Poetry

  1. For me, the primary difference is medium: Springsteen’s not as good on the page as he is in performance, live or recorded. There are also poems, as opposed to songs, composed for the physical voice, so there the comparison of poem and song gets closer, but what about melody and instrumentation? Don’t they contribute in key ways to the piece of art that is “The River”? I’d also submit that Tom Waits works better on the page than Springsteen, and probably Springsteen would say so too, but I don’t want to push an exhausted senior into a rampage or anything.

    If you haven’t read them yet, here’s your post-graduation syllabus: Christopher Ricks on Dylan and the essays here ( Lots of amazing takes on the aforementioned media problem. Oh, and Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present isn’t too bad either.

  2. R.T. Smith says:

    I really enjoy Springsteen’s songs as songs. As poems, they leave me less satisfied, but I always suspect that people who want to call song lyrics poems are trying to compliment the songs. When a sportscaster says that a running back is “poetry in motion,” he’s using the term “poetry” as a code word that doesn’t have a lot in common with the way most people who are treated by readers and critics as poets use it. When we say song lyrics are poetry, do we mean they’re just memorable pieces of language, or do we mean to submit them to the scrutiny we apply to Chaucer or Berryman or Dove? I remember teaching an old high school textbook called From Beowulf to the Beatles. No one I knew taught the song lyrics without bringing in a recording, but no one I knew felt the need to bring a harp to accompany the Old English poem. Wonder why.

    • Deborah Brooks says:

      When Bruce was honored in 2009 at the Kennedy Center Honors, Jon Stewart opened the tribute. He said, “I didn’t understand his work until I began to yearn, to question the things in my life and realize it wasn’t just a joyous parade of events”. He mentioned getting into his car after he left his job at a bar…feeling like a loser…and putting on Bruce’s music and “everything changed”. He went on to say that when you listen, you no longer feel like as loser as you become a character in an epic poem…….about losers. Perhaps that’s what Bruce’s music is…poetry that we see ourselves in, words we identify with, laugh with, cry with and, therefore, are redeemed. The man has a way with words, no doubt..the imagery, the pain, the everything…live..he is unmatched. As Stewart said, “A Springsteen concert is like a carnival that leaves you alive and breathless”..yes. And, as Bruce says, “I’m in the middle of a long conversation with my audience. It will be a lifelong journey for the both of us when we are done.” To me, this is poetry, the poetry of my life, the events of the world and, a way for me to say, “Yes…you get it. Thank you.”

  3. Frank McElroy says:

    His greatness as a poet is proven by two lines- in Highway 29, his description of impending doom and death-‘yeah, I was running and I was flying’.
    In Brothers under the bridge his description of the truth of all those lives that come apart for one reason or another- ‘one minute you’re right there, then something slips’……

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