I recently finished two collections of essays by magician and libertarian firebrand Penn Jillette, God, No! Signs You Might Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday (spoiler alert: Mr. Jillette does not like religion). In both books, Mr. Jillette discusses his love of collecting recordings produced by “song-poem” companies—essentially, scam companies that you could pay to take your poetry, have it set to music, and recorded by otherwise out-of-work musicians. Most of these recordings, Jillette informs us, are completely unlistenable, though he does admit that a few are truly beautiful.
Jillette’s odd choice of hobby aside, the notion of these “song-poems” fascinates me, in no small part because it highlights the odd relationship between what we call “songs” and what we call “poetry.” Where does one begin and the other end? Are all song lyrics poems, or does the presence of music accompaniment automatically exclude a set of lyrics from being High Art and thus Real Poetry?
I’d imagine that if you were to ask any random person on the street if songwriters can be considered poets, they would respond that most do not, though they might concede that a few favorite artists are creative and intelligent enough to earn that title. Bob Dylan in particular has often been called a poet; he has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and no less an authority on poetry than Allen Ginsburg declared the lyrics of Dylan’s 1975 track “Idiot Wind” to be the “great disillusioned national rhyme.” Andre Codrescu, himself a poet and commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, even praised Dylan as “the best living American poet there is, man!”
Dylan himself is surprisingly obtuse about whether he considers himself a poet. In his memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, he notes at one point that in his early years “I wasn’t yet the poet musician that I would become.” When explicitly asked the question “Do you consider yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” during a 1965 press conference, however, Dylan replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” Frustratingly, when the interviewer asks why, Dylan only responds, “Oh, I don’t think we have enough time to really go into that.”
The New York Times ran an entire Sunday Book Review feature on the topic of whether Dylan’s lyrical genius qualified him as a poet. In the article, one of the columnists, Francine Prose, rejects the notion that Dylan can be categorized at all, explaining, “He’s the heir, the unlikely offspring of Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman. But he’s neither Rimbaud nor Whitman. He’s Bob Dylan. Is he a poet or a songwriter? The same answer applies: He’s Bob Dylan.”
Complicating this issue are those rare artists who wear both hats: they not only write their own song lyrics, but they also take on additional poetry projects on the side. The prolific and influential musician Leonard Cohen is famous for his moving and deep lyrics—if I had to name any single musical artist whose song lyrics I consider to qualify as poetry, I would have to choose Cohen. Interestingly enough, however, Cohen does appear to make a distinction between when he is creating art as a songwriter and when is being a poet. He told Rolling Stone in a recent interview that he writes a good deal of poetry that is not suitable for song lyrics, but that he creates simply because he enjoys the process. This does not mean that Cohen keeps all his poetry for himself, however. In between putting out albums, he has released twelve books of poetry, perhaps the oddest of which is his third collection, entitled Flowers for Hitler.
So does the fact that Cohen releases books of poetry mean that his songs cannot be poetry? The fact that Cohen himself sees them as different pursuits has to carry some weight; I’d personally feel uncomfortable calling a work of art “poetry” if the artist himself did not consider it to be so.
Another songwriter who blurs the line between performance artist and poet is inimitable Tom Waits. Tom Waits’s lyrics are both bleak and beautiful, and I would have no problem declaring them to be “real poetry.” I’m hardly the only one—after the simultaneous release of two Waits albums, “Alice” and “Blood Money,” The New York Times declared Waits to be “a poet of outcasts.” Waits, however, would probably not take so kindly to being labeled a poet, telling an interviewer in 1975, “Poetry is a very dangerous word [ . . . ] I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet—so I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue. “
Perhaps Waits’s attitude toward poetry has calmed somewhat since then, as in 2011 he collaborated with photojournalist Michael O’Brien to create Hard Ground, which unites O’Brien’s photographs of homeless individuals and excerpts of Wait’s poetry to powerful effect. That same year, Waits released a limited-run chapbook containing a single extended poem called “Seeds on Hard Ground.” The poem meditated on themes of poverty and homelessness, and the proceeds from the sale of the book went to homeless services.
At the risk of sounding like a snob, I think it’s fair to say that most music you hear on the radio today would not under any definition qualify as poetry. But amidst all the sound and fury, I believe that true poetry can be found in the best lyrics of talented songwriters like Dylan, Cohen, and Waits.