Songs and Poetry

Songs and Poetry: Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

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In an earlier post, I referred to song lyrics as being a form of poetry.

There are many songwriters who write deeply poetic songs. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Billy Joel— they are among the greats. Today, singer/songwriters like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry are among the artists whose songs contain some incredibly powerful poetry.

While it might be fun to come up with more examples, I have no desire to try to list them all – I don’t even think that’s really possible. Chances are, some who make my list might not be included in yours. I just named a few to get you thinking.

While many songs rely on a catchy hook or a beat that makes people want to dance, it’s the poetry of others that gives them the power to move a person emotionally, or to profoundly affect someone’s thoughts and actions.

Consider the influence John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had on an entire generation. Similarly, Simon & Garfunkel touched hearts and lives worldwide with the soaring power of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, while the poignant emotion of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” or “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is still hard to resist.

I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but poetic songs seem to attach themselves to part of my soul and remain there, indelible and timeless.

This line of thinking led me to trying to work out which song contains my favourite “song poetry”. That’s actually a really tough question, so I decided I’d listen to a few of my favourites and try to narrow it down.
A week later, I think I have an answer. (Disclaimer: this answer is likely to change at any moment.)

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This song is a brilliant extended metaphor about identity and finding one’s place in the world. The contrast between a rock or an island with the vulnerability of being human, and the paradox of isolation being a form of sanctuary, are ideas which should be jarring, yet they are delivered with such finesse that we’re left thinking, “I totally get that!” They’re ideas and images we all understand, and the poet communicates uses a depth of emotion and human experience to say things that many other people could never bring themselves to verbalise.

The clincher for me is the final verse. “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” That’s exactly what I do! I retreat into fictional worlds. I write stories and poems that help me to deal with life. I use poetry to crystallise my thoughts and feelings, and use my writing to communicate what it’s hard to say any other way.

As I was reflecting on that final verse, a poem I wrote last year came to mind. I’m not suggesting that I think I’m as good as Paul Simon, but it does explore similar ideas of hiding behind – or within – the books and words I have written.

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It was written during a time of great personal conflict and turbulence, and expresses the refuge I found in my writing. In different poems written during this period, I portrayed myself at different times as a fighter, as a hostage, and as a traveler. At no time did I portray myself as willing to surrender to the storm that raged around me, nor to anything else that tried to do me in. In my writing, I was strong. I was safe.

When I went back to read that poem as part of the process of writing this post, I was stunned to discover the similarity of the ideas to those explored by Paul Simon, even though my poem was neither based on nor drawn from his lyrics.

I was also confronted by the warning of the last two lines. I have to take care when I feel or experience something, or when I write something powerful, that I can’t afford to unpack and live there. I still have to live my life and be who I am, and I still have to deal with whatever life throws at me.

After all, I am neither a rock nor an island, no matter how much I might sometimes wish I were.


‘Safe’ is published in my book, ‘The Passing Of The Night’.

 

 

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My favourite.

In class just now:

Student: “Can we please put some music on?”

Me: “No.”

Student: “Even if you choose it?”

Me: “No.”

Student: “But I want to know what music you like.”

Me: “I like lots of different types of music.”

Student: “What’s your favourite song right now?”

Me: “The sweet sound of people working on their history assignments.”

Student: “Oooh, I’m going to look that up!”

Me: Sigh. 

Not as deep as I thought. 

My students were working on their assignments to create an original interpretation of the story of Beowulf.

All was quiet, until one said, “There’s no more music. Only death.”

I commented on how poetic that was, and asked if she was going to use that for the scene where Grendel attacks the Danes in their mead hall.”

She looked surprised.

“No… I had music notes in the picture and I took them out.”

 

Sigh.