Nov 152010

That recent Lou Reed post got me thinking, How does a rock and roller get to be labeled a “poet” anyway?

Do you have to declare it, like Jim Morrison?

Do you have to have a lot of Bohemian affectations and let others christen you as such, like Patti Smith?

Clearly Leonard Cohen is the real deal because before he was a songwriter he won that poetry award in Canada. But are his lyrics poetry?

Dylan will no doubt get mentioned here but I always got the sense that he’s just messing with his fan’s heads because they are so obsessive about trying to find some deep universal truth in everything he writes.

Is Lou Reed, on his best day (say, “Venus in Furs”), really a poet?

And where does all this leave someone like Smokey Robinson, whose lyrics are simple, and perfect for the songs they inhabit?

Part of the problem here is that I haven’t read a lot of poetry outside of Bukowski and some of standards that you have to read for high school, so maybe a lot of this stuff is great Poetry and I just didn’t realize it.

Are there songwriters that you consider Poets (as opposed to just very clever lyricists)? Please include an example of what you consider to be poetry in lyrics. I think the criteria should be that the words stand on their own without the music.



  12 Responses to “Poetic Champions Compose”

  1. Sorry for any over lap with that previous post. I didn’t recall that one.

  2. No need to apologize! That old post focused on Poets Who Rock. Your new post focuses on Rockers Who Poet. I set the link in there for background reading. I don’t think your questions in this post were answered by that old one, and even if they were to any extent not all the people on RTH today were here then. Discuss…

  3. machinery

    Isn’t Patti Smith a poet/rocker? Maybe Paul Simon?

    I’ve always thought Costello, with his verbal gymnastics was very poetic.

    Is Wallace on Rock Town Hall? He could answer from a professional poet’s point of view.

  4. machinery

    Sorry, you did mention Smith in your post …

  5. Quickly off the top of my head — some lyric sheets that can read like poetry, to me are:

    Suzanne Vega (esp. Songs in Red & Gray)
    Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes)
    Paul Westerberg (I think at least he thinks so, see the cover of 14 Songs)
    John Wesley Harding

  6. Yes, but is she really a poet? Do her lyrics sound like poetry to you? I’ve never gotten in to her so I’m not too familiar with her songs but what I have heard doesn’t really sound particularly poetic to me.

  7. Like you, I’m not very experienced when it comes to poetry, but I’d say Yes, she’s a poet. In fact, she started as a poet, so good or not, that’s got to count for something and make her more like Leonard Cohen, no? The song “Birdland” is pretty cool Beat poetry set to garage rock, if you ask me.

  8. From Pete Townshend’s Scoop liner notes: “This attempt to fuse streamed poetry with straight lyrics was probably as successful as the other examples on Chinese Eyes …”. I’ll take him at his word since a lot of the words on Chinese Eyes don’t make sense as song lyrics.

  9. mockcarr

    I’d add Jeff Tweedy in the Westerberg tradition.

  10. I’m of the firm belief that lyrics, no matter how beautiful and artistic, will never be poetry. I think Dylan is a brilliant songwriter. I also think he is a lousy poet. Absolute shite. I don’t know about Cohen. I’m glad that Costello hasn’t published his lyrics as “poetry” like Macca did a few years back. I think it’s a cop out, but I’m probably an elitist.

    And I don’t like it when people take poetry and put music to it. Too easy.


  11. mockcarr

    I would say Minutemen lyrics often read like poetry, but part of the reason it works for them may be D. Boon’s limited melodic ability, so he’s reciting or hollering as much as singing.

  12. I’ll catch it for this but I’d give a vote for Billy Joel. The main reason is for his use of rhyme schemes. “Baby Grand” is a good one with it’s use of putting the rhyme word in the middle of the line instead of the end.

    Late at night
    When it’s dark and cold
    I reach out
    For someone to hold
    When I’m blue
    When I’m lonely
    She comes through
    She’s the only one who can
    My baby grand
    Is all I need

    In my time
    I’ve wandered everywhere
    Around this world
    She would always be there
    Any day
    Any hour
    All it takes
    Is the power in my hands
    This baby grand’s
    Been good to me

    I’ve had friends
    But they have slipped away
    I’ve had fame
    But it doesn’t stay
    I’ve made fortunes
    Spent them fast enough
    As for women
    They don’t last with just one man
    But my baby grand
    Will stand by me

    They say that no one’s gonna play this on the radio
    They said the melancholy blues were dead and gone
    But only songs like these
    Played in minor keys
    Keep those memories holding on

    I’ve come far
    From the life I’ve strayed in
    I’ve got scars
    From those dives I’ve played in
    Now I’m home
    And I’m weary
    In my bones
    Every dreary one night stand
    But my baby grand
    Is coming home with me

    Ever since this gig began
    My baby grand’s
    Been good to me

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