A very talented friend and musician recently asked me if I wanted to write a song with her. She was frustrated with her own lyrics, and having read some of my poetry, she thought that I could assist her. At first I was dumbfounded. I had never written a song before – why would she want my help? She insisted that writing lyrics was no different than writing a poem. Since I had never tried it, how could I contest? The project inspired me to ponder the distinction between a lyricist and poet. I hesitate to say musician, because, as we all know, many musicians do not write their own lyrics.
Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison – all famous musicians and poets. Would it be reasonable to assume that most of these artists’ songs started as poems? With books of published poems that make them “poets” and albums of music that render them “musicians,” where exactly is the distinction between these two arts?
How many times had I listened to the lyrics of a song and recognized them as poetry? Just yesterday I was listening to Sharon Van Etten’s deeply poetic album, Tramp. The song “Give Out” in particular resonated with me on a profound level that I thought only a confessional poet could achieve. Sharon has never written a collection of poems that I know of, but she has written an incredible oeuvre of lyrics.
The first “lyrics” I sent Emma were some of my rough poems, chopped and screwed to fit a sort of rhyme scheme. The moment I pressed send, I felt a sting of regret. I have always enjoyed reading lyrical poetry, but never found I could produce anything that rhymed without sounding cheesy. There was something about a rhyme scheme that seemed to trivialize my sentiments. Maybe it’s because most words have a limited amount of rhymes, so they inevitably become cliché through repetition.
Emma was supportive of what I wrote, but she could sense my distance from the work. She knew we could do better, and I wasn’t offended. In fact, I was relieved. The next lyrics we produced were fresh, written with a musical sensibility. By that I mean the poem had song structure in mind, with a repeating chorus and possibilities for a bridge (yes, it even rhymed). It was unlike anything I’d ever written but I did not feel that it was any less of a poem.
Ultimately, the project was enlightening. The collaborative process allowed me to be flexible with my writing and above all, forgiving. It was enthralling to watch Emma absorb my words and find her own meaning within them, using this response to then craft a song.
The music elevated my poem into something tangible. Music washes over you – it is a distinct experience. A poem wants you to engage with it, like a person begging to be understood or appreciated. Music is a vehicle for poetry, making it accessible to everyone. Melody can punctuate the themes of the words, set the tone and relay the message in an engaging way. Or maybe it just goes down easier.
So this is what we came up with. This is a rough cut – a first draft, if you will. The vocals and music is all Emma but the lyrics were a poem of mine. And now they are something else: