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Music Is Poetry Essay Plan

Because I use pop lyrics in my poems and review records for SPIN and elsewhere, people sometimes ask me whether I think of song lyrics as poetry. Looked at in certain ways, they obviously are; in other respects, it seems worthwhile to preserve a distinction. I have collections of the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert, Stephen Foster, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. What would be the point of denying these lyricists the honorific of "poet"? And if your definition of poetry excludes these lines, your definition of poetry doesn't matter to me:

All the people we used to know

They're an illusion to me now

Some are mathematicians

Some are carpenters' wives

Don't know how it all got started

I don't know what they're doin' with their lives

I know: Bob Dylan the poet, yawn. You should have heard me go on about these lines when I was 17.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Still, I've been stranded in the dead waters of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" or some other well-behaved token in a literature anthology (Morrissey's "Cemetery Gates" and Mos Def's "Hip Hop," in the most recent "Norton Introduction to Literature") often enough to question the motivation to enshrine these songs. There's something feebly earnest about anthologies like Richard Goldstein's "The Poetry of Rock" or Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' recent "Anthology of Rap." Does Dylan or Clipse really need to be rescued from the ghetto of popular culture? I'd say anyone who can write like this —

All the snow on the timepiece confusin' 'em

All the snow on the concrete Peruvian

I flew it in, it ruined men, I'm through with them

Blamed for misguiding their life

So go and sue me then

— is doing fine without W. W. Norton's imprimatur.

Anyway, at least half the force of these lines is in Pusha T's delivery: He shakes each syllable in his teeth to break its spine against the click-clack industrial rhythms of the backing track. A great tune, a killer solo, a perfect beat can render terrible lyrics irrelevant, as Neil Young's career proves. (Contrariwise, there are lyricists I admire, like Joanna Newsom, whose music makes me want to stick a tuning fork in my eye.)

Lyrics work best when they aren't straining to achieve poetic effect (ask Jackson Browne). Check Phil Lynott's lines from Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town":

That night over at Johnny's place

Well this chick got up and she slapped Johnny's face

Man, we just fell about the place

If that chick don't want to know, forget her

If she don't want to know what? If she don't want to know. Springsteen became a great songwriter when he stopped aping Dylan and found the poetry in a "sixty-nine Chevy with a 396 / Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor."

At the moment, the lyricist who impresses me most is Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers. Although he wrote some of that Skynyrd-proud band's best numbers, his first few solo records came on too safe. But the songs on his new record, "Southeastern," make all the music around them on the radio sound like jingles for Discount Carpet Warehouse. Partly that's because his voice is so idiosyncratically gorgeous that he could sing the Surgeon General's warning on a pack of smokes and make you cry.

But it's also because of lines like these, from "Different Days": "You been stripping Portland from the day you turned sixteen / You got one thing to sell, benzodiazepine." It's not just that that last line's a hell of a good joke (you don't expect that to be the one thing a stripper has to sell). It's that Isbell knows how his lyrics work in a way that has nothing to do with their meaning. "I step into a shop to buy a postcard for a girl" sounds full of emotion on "Relatively Easy," but why? For one thing, it's perfectly iambic. For another, there's a pleasing consonance of s's and p's.

Like the Clipse lyrics above, Isbell's operate at the phonemic level, sounds picking up on and pinging off one another:

I lost a good friend

Christmastime when folks go off the deep end

His woman took the kids

And he took Klonopin

Enough to kill a man of twice his size

It's not only the end rhymes that power this — listen to the way "woman" resonates with "Klonopin," "Chris" with "kids" and "kill," "time" with "twice" and "size."

This is what Roger Miller calls "hooked up." Miller explained the concept to Dave Hickey for Hickey's entry on "The Song in Country Music" in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors' "A New Literary History of America" (2009) (the single best discussion of song lyrics I know). Miller sang Hickey half a verse of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" —

Busted flat in Baton Rouge

Headed for the trains

Feeling nearly faded as my jeans

"That's hooked up," Miller said. "I love the 'as' that picks up 'flat' and 'bat.'" And "faded" picks up "headed" and "trains."

Hickey asked Waylon Jennings about Hank Williams' songs, and Jennings "sang lines from two or three of them and showed me how the sounding of the consonants moved from the front to the back of the mouth so the vowels were always singable." The songwriter Harlan Howard used Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" as an example:

I try so hard my dear to say

That you're my every dream

Yet you're afraid each thing I do

Is just some evil scheme

Some mem'ry from your lonesome past

Keeps us so far apart

Why can't I free your doubtful mind

And melt your cold, cold heart

Howard "explained that these eight short lines were invisibly held together by fifteen internal r phonemes. There are triples in the first two lines, four pairs, and the terminal 'heart' that gives the verse closure. 'Nobody notices this,' Howard said. 'That's the idea, but once these words are put together this way, they won't come apart.'"

That's important: You don't necessarily attend consciously to these elements in the song; you're not meant to. They're glue, holding the verse in your memory, sticking the words to your ears. And just as the few poets left who write in meter (ahem) don't need to count off beats on their fingers, because they have internalized the mechanism through long practice, a songwriter can lay these units down without having to plot out the placement of r phonemes as he writes. "Once you learned how to do it, you couldn't not do it," Hickey explains.

This is the most significant way in which songs differ from poems — they're intended to be heard, while poems for some time have been written primarily for the eye. As Christopher Ricks puts it in his brilliant and annoying "Dylan's Visions of Sin," "the eye can always simply see more than it is reading, looking at; the ear cannot, in this sense (given what the sense of hearing is), hear a larger span than it is receiving. This makes the relation of an artist like Dylan to song and ending crucially different from the relation of an artist like Donne or Larkin to ending."

Poems, that is to say, are no less complex than a hooked-up country song (or shouldn't be any less complex; God knows they are, often enough). But a poem's hooks are spatial in a way a song's can't be — you see its ending coming — unless the song is reduced to its printed lyrics, in which case it's not a song anymore. Lyrics are just one moving part of the machine we call a song — without music and voice, they just sort of sit there, no matter how meticulously crafted they might be. So whether lyrics are poetry is a question that doesn't require an answer, or has too many to bother with. It's enough that we have songs — "domestic magic," Hickey calls Hank's — and can sing them.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" as well as the forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."

Music is Poetry

A lesson plan by Brenda Guerra

Subject: Eighth grade Language Arts
Duration: Three class periods (40 minutes per period)

This lesson plan was one of the winners in a lesson plan contest sponsored by TeachersFirst in 2002. TeachersFirst editors have added technology options where appropriate.

RationaleI created this unit to "turn students on" to poetry. They love to listen to their own music and if they see that it is really poetry, they will be more interested and receptive to a poetry unit.

Common Core English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 8, Standard RL.8.10

Common Core English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 8, Standard RL.8.4

MaterialsSchool-appropriate CDs and lyrics (or links to lyrics pages online)* which students bring in ahead of time and which are previewed and listened to by the teacher; CD player; 3-4 copies of the lyrics for each song so the groups may analyze them; transparency of the questions that students will need to copy on the first day of the activity; teacher-chosen groups of students who work well together and have a strong leader to keep the group focused.

* Find online lyrics via Google search with the song title in quotation marks and and word lyrics. Teacher should preview, since many lyrics sites are user-generated and may have "other" content inappropriate for the classroom.
ProcedureBefore this lesson, I cover the poetic devices with my classes, including imagery, onomatopoeia, personification, alliteration, assonance, consonance, metaphors, and similes. Students should be familiar with these devices so they will be able to find them in the lyrics when they analyze them. The teacher must obtain CDs and lyrics (or links) a few days/weeks ahead of time so that he/she can be prepared to play them on the first day of the lesson. The music should be student-selected, and if possible, a class vote may be taken a few days before as to which songs the class(es) want to hear and analyze. A list of questions should be prepared on the overhead or for projection from the computer on screen or interactive whiteboard for students and copied/opened on computers by all students on the first day of the lesson. I suggest five questions at the most.
QuestionsQuestions might include:
  • What is the song about? What does the title have to do with the song?
  • What message is the song trying to convey to the listener?
  • What three poetic sound devices can you find? Write the lines that you find each devices in and explain.
  • What two figurative devices (metaphor, simile, personification) can you find in the lyrics? Write the lines and explain each one.
  • Are the lyrics written as lines of poetry? If not, how would you break the lines into lines of poetry?
Day 1I suggest telling students their group members on the first day so they may immediately get started on the following day. I suggest groups of no more than three. Each group will have to answer questions and analyze only one song.

Also on the first day, while students are copying the questions, I ask for two student volunteers to work the CD player. Students will first listen to the music before analyzing. If possible, lyrics should be provided on paper or on screen/whiteboard so they may look on while the music is being played. I try to play all of the songs selected, or as many as time permits.
Day 2On the next day, students immediately get with their group members and take out their questions from the day before. The group that can get settled quickest will have first choice of the song they want to analyze. I then pass the lyrics to each of the group members. Alternatively, students can listen to CDs on computers with the lyrics on screen as they listen and create a word processing document with their group answers. They can also use the highlighter and other editing tools in the word processing program to annotate the lyrics copied and pasted from the web page (with credit, of course). They are told that they will only need to pass in one sheet/electronic file of answers and that answers to the questions should be in complete sentences. All group members must contribute to the analysis of the lyrics. If I see any student who looks like a non-participator I make a note of it and he/she will have points deducted.

After each group has received its song and lyrics, I walk around and monitor the groups. If a group has a question, the members must first check with each other to see if they can't solve it as a group first. If not, they all need to raise their hands before I will go over to help. I will try to help students without giving them any answers. At the end of the period, I ask for a runner from each group to return the group question sheet and the lyrics from each of the group members (or have them share it via Google docs or email). In this way, if any student is absent the following day, the rest of the group still has the work from that day.
Day 3Day three continues in the same way as day two. The groups should settle down quickly and I pass out the lyrics and group question sheets to each group (if needed) as they continue to work on their analysis.

If time permits, on the day following the completion of the assignment, I like to have the groups go up in front of the class and present their findings in a five minute presentation. Have students make a multimedia presentation using one of the many TeachersFirst Edge tools reviewed here. The interactive whiteboard is ideal for presenting the information both visually and verbally. Each member should contribute in some way. This should be done only if time permits. The teacher may feel it is enough that the groups completed the questions and turned them in.

The questions are worth 50 points. The teacher may decide how he/she wants to evaluate each question.
EvaluationI use the assignment for a class work grade of 50 points. Each question is worth roughly 5 points each, with each poetic device counted as 5 points each. I am rather lenient with my grading if the group gets the gist of the song. Some songs are harder to interpret than others and I will be more lenient for the harder lyrics. I count the presentation as a separate grade worth 20 points. Each student in the group must contribute to get a presentation grade.

More TeachersFirst resources for middle school language arts

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