Bob Dylan’s [in]famous Nobel Prize for Literature started off a debate—and not an especially acrimonious one—between those who felt the award was well-deserved and those who felt it was an unacceptable usurpation of literary turf by an artist from outside the tribe. People got exercised for a while and then everybody went back to what they were doing.
For me, and I’m sure many others, the debate renewed interest in exactly how narrow or broad the category of literature should be allowed to be, and—more to the point—how a piece of writing is affected when it’s presented in musical form.
But forget the music for a second. Poetry already has a full arsenal of resources that are commonly thought of as musical: rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, and formal architectures that are structured in ways analogous to forms in music. Plus, we already think of poetry as music: Dream Songs, Sanatorium Songs, Songs that Remind Us of Factories, Four Quartets (insert boilerplate about Homeric origins).
Poets who know what they’re doing pay attention to the sound of their writing. The establishment of a sonic strategy/personality for a poem or body of work is effectively a kind of constraint, regardless of whether that personality relies on explicit, “old-fashioned” formal resources, (i.e., iambic pentameter, the sonnet form).
“No vers is truly libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” (T.S. Eliot)
“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” (Robert Frost)
I used to dislike the Frost quote because I thought he was saying rhyme and meter exist purely to make the material work of writing a poem harder. Now, knowing Frost a bit better, I figure he probably had a more nuanced, three-dimensional notion of constraint in mind—in particular, that formal constraints can amplify poetic energy at the same time that they impose quasi-physical restrictions.
The point here is that writing poetry of any kind is a matter of wrestling with constraint, whether the constraint is internalized and not evident to the reader or selected from the repertoire of established, oft-used forms.
A songwriter is both a poet and musician. They create two types of meaning—words and music—and make a song. The art form isn’t so much an addition of two forms but a synthesis that truly is, when it works, greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the songwriter’s peculiar genius.
Poets who know what they’re doing pay attention to the sound of their writing.
But the quality of words as poetry has less to do with the success of the song they’re part of than it has to do with the success of a purely written or spoken poem sans music. As Daniel Renton noted in his opening piece for this series, lyrics pried away from the song and read alone are often banal or even simply bad, as poems.
The musical line in a song is an emotional point of entry for the listener. It takes the leading role in establishing the tone or mood of a song—upbeat, silly, reflective, sad, nostalgic, whatever—and its presence is such a strong support for the content of the lyrics that really all the lyrics need to do is mirror that tone or mood. They can be highly sophisticated, capable of standing on their own alongside the best that “on the page” poets have to offer, if the songwriter has the talent for it. But they don’t have to be. The song is music-intensive. If the music captures our attention, if it can elicit our emotional response, the song will be successful as a song almost without regard to the quality of the lyrics. The words are a passive presence.
As luck would have it, the Afternoon Drive show on CBC a couple of days ago featured a music journalist who talked about the effect transposing a song from a major key to a minor, and vice versa, has on how we hear the lyrics. He chose REM’s “Losing My Religion” and “YMCA” by Village People and switched the keys (minor to major and major to minor respectively).
So maybe I’m new, but I was astounded at how completely the change in key altered how I heard the words. It changed something behind the words. The major key imparted a positive, even bouncy feel to what are negative sentiments, while the minor key transformed positive, playful sentiment into near-existential uncertainty and ambiguity.
The transformation seemed to me to occur completely independently of what the words were saying. And the song’s resolution—positive in one case, negative in the other—was, thanks to the music, present from the first few notes. It coloured the reading of the words step-by-step through the song. Which, aside from the fun of playing with the music, suggests to me that the non-verbal element, the music, is the main channel or vehicle for eliciting an emotional response in the listener.
Rhythm, rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, all the modulations of sound in poetry—all of the elements of what we think of as form in poetry—operate in their strictest forms as constraints. The better a poet is, the more completely they operate within those constraints, pressing against or breaking them as required.
In a song that impresses us with how it combines words and music to generate a coherent, unitary effect, does the music operate as a constraint on the words in the same way? I don’t think so. Except that the decision to adopt a particular musical form and structure compels the songwriter to adopt lines of a certain length and pattern. But to me the words are secondary. They’re almost a colouring for the music.
Rhythm, rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, all the modulations of sound in poetry—all of the elements of what we think of as form in poetry—operate in their strictest forms as constraints.
Does the songwriter get inspiration in the form of some phrases or lines and then look for the right musical envelope for the words, or get taken by a musical line that evokes the words? Do they start with the song in embryo, with the first words and the first musical ideas already interpenetrated, enriching each other and needing only the usual revision, the usual fiddling and final touches before the song is completed?
Writing a good poem is an achievement. Writing good music is an achievement. Doing both to create a good piece of popular music is just mind-blowing. There should be awards for when someone does it really well.
When you think about it, rhyme is such a silly thing. One word sounds like another. What’s the big deal?
Andrew Brooks is a Toronto poet and freelance writer/editor who once took a 30-year break from poetry and lived to tell about it. For the last five or six years he’s been trying to pick up the thread. This is the first time he’s been published in, well, 30 years.