Poetry - Music As Poetry

For National Poetry Day, Nate McKenzie tries to get the message across using the power of music...

Traditional poetry does not get the universal respect it deserves. Many people are put-off by poetry for myriad reasons; they feel they aren't smart enough to understand poetry or that it is too smug and pretentious. Some people simply find it to be boring.

However, you rarely hear the same complaints about music in general. Victor Hugo, one of the great writers in history, understood the power of music saying, Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." Some would argue that music (specifically more modern music) is not poetry.

That is odd to me.

Musicians are, after all, natural poets. Much like poetry, music can rhyme or not, it can convey love or love lost, life, death, or whatever comes after. The theme of a song or poem can be inspired by terrible tragedy or objects with seemingly no importance.

Freddy Mercury sang about a man selling his soul to the Devil

Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time

and then sang about riding a bicycle

I don't wanna be a candidate
For Vietnam or Watergate
'Cause all I want to do is
Bicycle bicycle bicycle

Charles Bukowski wrote about the futility of love

we are all trapped
by a singular
nobody ever finds
the one.

and then the dangers of being a trashcan

the wind blows hard tonight

Poetry is emotion and nothing elicits a stronger emotional response in a wider swath of humans than music. The simplest poems are still about much more than what they seem. A poet who puts words to paper is revealing something about themselves, something they may not even be aware of; they allow themselves to be vulnerable. Much the same way a musician on stage pours physical energy and emotion into a performance. The act of doing either is cathartic to wounds topical and unseen alike. Bicycle Race isn't really about a bicycle and Trashcan Lives isn't really about trashcans. Both superficial subjects are emblematic of something deeper.

Song lyrics are the typification of poetry in motion. Sounds vibrate, they have movement, fluidity. Music played and words sung have flow, and when they flow really well they have tangible effects on a listener.

If you are one who doubts the merit of song lyrics as poetry allow me to persuade you with an exercise.

Guess which of these samples from each set are from a song and which is from a poem:

when we've left each friend and brother
when we're parted wide and far
we will think of one another
as even better than we are


fireflies dance in the heat of
hound dogs that bay at the moon
my ship leaves in the midnight
can't say I'll be back too soon

the words you scribbled on the walls
with the loss of friends you didn't have
I'll call you when the time is right
are you in or are you out
for them all to know the end of us all


into the nothingness of scorn and noise
into the living sea of waking dreams
where there is neither sense of life or joys
but the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems

I see colours when I hear your voice
grab your wings, they're putting gravity on trial
I see colours, I don't hear the noise
because we're only flying for awhile


when the thunder stalks the sky,
when tickle-footed walks the fly,
when shirt is wet and throat is dry,
look, my darling, that's July

and so it is
just like you said it would be
life goes easy on me
most of the time
and so it is
the shorter story
no love, no glory
no hero in her sky


under the brown fog of a winter dawn
a crowd flowed over London Bridge
so many,
I had not thought death had undone
so many.

if you can make one heap of all your winnings
and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
and lose, and start again at your beginnings
and never breathe a word about your loss


is it in you now
to bear to hear the truth that you have spoken
twisted up by knaves
to make a trap for fools


1) The first is a POEM - Parting, Emily Bronte; The second, a SONG - Seasons of Wither by Aerosmith
2) The first is a SONG - A Favor House Atlantic by Coheed & Cambria; The second, a POEM - I Am, John Clare
3) The first is a SONG - Synesthesia by Andrew McMahon; The second, a POEM - Summer Serenade, Ogden Nash
4) The first is a SONG - The Blower's Daughter by Damien Rice; The second, a POEM - The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
5) This was a bit of a trick. The first sample is from the poem If by Rudyard Kipling; the second is from a song by Brand New called Sowing Season but the lines "to bear to hear the truth that you have spoken, twisted up by knaves, to make a trap for fools" is taken from that same poem.

That is the illustration of my point. If you put music to a beautiful poem it becomes a beautiful song, and if you remove the music from a great song, leaving only the lyrics, it isn't diminished, it doesn't become a skeleton of its previous form, it simply transforms into a great poem.

To be honest, you don't even always need the words. Listen to Pachelbel's Canon and tell me that isn't poetry.

Poetry is not a lost or dying art form. Like anything powerful and lasting in this world, poetry has just evolved. Music is poetry's new form; it is the great love language of the modern world.

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