Lyrics

A Poem Is Not A Lyric

By John Braheny

In the print medium, we have an exceptional legacy of poetry in all languages. Much of that poetry also lends itself to recitation and, in fact, may be written specifically to be recited. It is one of a poet's creative options, and if he chooses it, he knows that there are certain words or syllables that won't flow comfortably in speech but will work fine on paper. Other words that can conjure pictures when spoken passionately don't have nearly as much impact on paper. Dylan Thomas's poetry, though it does work on paper, was clearly written to be recited, and recordings of him or Brendan Behan reciting it can bring tears to the eyes. The point is that poetry lives in the media of both print and speech. Lyrics, on the other hand, live elsewhere.

A common misconception is that songs are poetry put to music. It is true that an immense number of treasured lyrics do work as well on the printed page as in a musical context. Writer/artists such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and others possess vocal and writing styles so integrated that an unusually poetic phrase feels right at home in their styles, but would not work comfortably in another artist's style. Very few Joni Mitchell songs can be performed by another artist without imitating her style.

Performers such as these are considered "album artists." In other words, we buy their albums, not because they have a hit single, but because we like their style and the people we perceive them to be. We're likely to read their lyrics on the CD inserts and allow them a little more "poetic license," a little more abstraction and a few more obscure references that we're challenged to figure out. We don't mind because we're already fans.

The point is that, in most cases, a good poem does not necessarily make a good lyric. The obvious difference is that a lyric must function with music. It must be sung. A poem written for the printed page alone can use graphic style and unusual placement of words on a page to emphasize subtleties in meaning. It's not expected to rhyme. It can use identities (board/ bored) and sight rhymes (love/move). It can indulge in abstractions, because if the words aren't readily understood, our eyes and minds can stop for as long as we need to let them sink in and bounce around in the brain.

Much of what is referred to as "poetry" is actually verse. The difference is that between substance and form, imagination and craft. Verse is really anything that conforms to accepted metrical rules and structure. Anyone can write good verse that rhymes and has accurate meter, but if it's devoid of substance and imagination, it's still not poetry.

The lyric, like a poem, seeks to express an idea or emotion imaginatively in a condensed, yet powerful way. Music helps it do that. The late great composer/teacher/harmonica virtuoso Eddy Lawrence Manson, in his classes, asked students to walk across the room the same way several times. Each time, he plays different music, each selection expressing a different mood. The music gives a different impression about what that person is feeling, where he or she is going. You can use music to do that to a lyrical phrase too. The right—or wrong—music can give that spare and lean phrase exactly the right or wrong meaning. New lyricists have a tendency to minimize the importance of music as a vehicle to deliver their message.

Unlike in poetry, the words in a lyric must easily lend themselves to singing. Words like orange are not only impossible to rhyme, but difficult to sing. A lyricist needs to be able to imagine someone singing the words.

In writing lyrics for radio songs, we need to remember that listeners don't have the same amount of time to wonder what the words really mean as they do when they read poetry. They only have a quick three or four minutes.



This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting, (3rd Edition 2007) has been edited for length. It's available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.










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