Some poets pick some song lyrics worth reading.
Most of us don’t need a small group of learned Swedes to tell us that Bob Dylan is a poet. We likely forged our opinion on the matter long ago, somewhere between “Talkin’ New York” (1962) and “Thunder on the Mountain” (2006). But let’s not stop at Dylan. Why not call all Bobs poets? Bob Marley, Bob Seger, Bob Weir. Add in the Bobbys and Bobbies, too, for that matter: “Blue” Bland, Brown, Gentry. It’s an eclectic group. But if we relinquish the idea that the term “poet” is a kind of coronation, we’re free to understand it as a descriptive term for someone who works with words in concentrate, which all of these Bobs and Bobbies do.
Perhaps Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature can be a beginning—of closer attention to lyric craft; of richer conversations among songwriters, poets, and the rest of us. The poetry in pop songs can be masterful or careless, disposable or timeless. It can be in the service of well-crafted narratives (like Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”) or more abstract tone pieces (like Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw”). It can result in works that endure (like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s signature song “Turn On Your Love Light,” covered dozens of times including, famously, by Bob Weir’s Grateful Dead) or works that capture a moment and then recede into nostalgia (like Bobby Brown’s chart-topping 1989 hit “My Prerogative”).
In my new book, The Poetry of Pop, I make the case for taking pop songs seriously—without being too serious about it. Few of us first encounter song lyrics on the page as poetry or as sheet music. Instead, we experience lyrics as sound, usually recorded and sometimes live. Page-born poems and song lyrics are not the same things, but they are drawn together by affinities of sound and silence, patterns of language, and shared games with words.
What follows is a selection from the book’s appendix, which is made up of lists like “Fifteen Lyrics that Effectively Rhyme ‘Moon’ with ‘June,’ ” “Some Whispers, Some Screams,” and “Twenty Epistolary Recordings.” My favorite list is the one included here, in which I asked nine poets to suggest a song lyric that they believe rewards close attention. Their selections span nearly half a century of sound, crossing multiple genres and inviting the kind of interest that will make you pull up a second tab on your web browser and listen to the song for yourself.
How do poets listen to pop songs? Do they hear things the rest of us don’t? Do they count the rhythms of the lines? Do they separate the half from the full rhymes? Do they feel the song more fully because of their knowledge of the inner workings of syllables and sounds, or does that knowledge get in the way of listening? These nine poets answer affirmatively that poets do, in fact, notice things in song lyrics that might otherwise escape our attention. Their sensitivity and vision can guide us.
So read pop songs like poems. Sing poems like pop songs. Both acts may seem unnatural, perhaps even perverse at first. Some parts won’t fit. Some sounds will clash. But the practice brings new clarity and insight. Poetic tools of sound, meaning, and feeling are at work in even the most banal pop song, just as they are at work in even the most trite ode or sonnet. The dance of word and music makes songs act on our imagination and emotions just as the best poems do. Attentive readers, like the nine poets below, unlock mysteries of lyric expression through the poetics of form, as well as through ineffable qualities of voice and music. This is the poetry of pop.
H. L. Hix picks Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967). It will surely be the most uncool choice in this playlist, and it was long “before my time” (I didn’t encounter it until many years after it had disappeared off the charts), but Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” brilliantly achieves (in a song that is all lyrics—the guitar just keeps the rhythm) a poetic value I find powerful: subordination of event to situation. “Ode to Billie Joe” seems ostensibly about events: the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge, Billie Joe jumping off the bridge, and so on. But although those events get named, they are mostly withheld: we don’t know what the pair were throwing off the bridge, we don’t know why Billie Joe killed himself. What is revealed with utter clarity is the narrator’s situation: she is spoken to and spoken about within the poem, but she herself is never allowed to speak; she is closely monitored (told to wipe her feet, interrogated for not eating, observed and reported on) but not recognized at all; she is kept in place by her society, but is afforded no place in her society; kinship relations are enforced on her from without, but the kinship she feels is denied her. In Gottlob Frege’s terms, “Ode to Billie Joe” obscures reference in order to disclose sense. In Aristotle’s terms, “Ode to Billie Joe” inverts the tragic focus on mythos for a lyric focus on ethos. The narrator makes no explicit criticism of her society, but her implicit critique is devastating. She does not declare her social alienation and erasure, but I feel it all the more strongly for its not being declared. Her protest takes the form of lamentation. I experience “Ode to Billie Joe” as a most robust fulfillment of Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Kyle Dargan picks Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” (1971). Anyone who has taken a workshop with me has heard my idea about writing poetry being like building the lightest possible plane that will fly. Sometimes, that is. There is a place for excess, for everything in poetic intent, but, staying with this idea of efficiency and vicious concision, Marvin Gaye and James Nyx’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” has impressed me for a long time by capturing so much depth and nuance with so little. The sense of being caught in an inescapable, economic spiral builds over the verses, but let’s start with the second: “Inflation, no chance/ to increase finance. / Bills pile up sky high./ Send that boy off to die.” “Inflation, no chance” is an economics white paper in itself, but the juxtaposition of all four lines makes it possible to see a connection among poverty, loss of economic ground, and the pressures to enlist (and die) in the army. A sparse, quiet but wrenching verse that creates space for the “holler” to emerge as the chorus.
Evie Shockley picks Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” (1976). Set with an impossible task (pick one??), I default to the songwriter who, for me, set the standard of song lyrics as poetry. “Hejira” is not my top Joni Mitchell song for listening, but these are definitely the lyrics I’d most want to read. From the gorgeous one-word title (an Arabic word signifying a flight from danger or journey to a more congenial place), we move into the “melancholy” meditation of a woman who travels to escape from “the petty wars / that shell shock love away.” She’s recovering from a relationship that seems to have been overpowering— relieved to be released back to herself, but at the same time in withdrawal. The quatrain that moves me perhaps most of all carries forward both her theme of duality and her breathtaking talent for making abstractions tangible through metaphorical images: “In the church they light the candles / And the wax rolls down like tears / There’s the hope and the hopelessness / I’ve witnessed thirty years.” There. One image does double duty, daring us to pretend that the fire burning within us is not also burning us, or that we can avoid for long being “suck[ ed] … back” into connection with others by our need to and for love.
Raza Ali Hasan picks Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” (1980). W. H. Auden reputedly mined the Beatles songbook in his search for new influences for his own work. I am no Auden, but in the poem “British Steel,” which is the last poem in my newest poetry collection, Sorrows of the Warrior Class (2015), I riff on lines not from the Beatles but from an American band: “Once in a Lifetime, / you may find yourself, / pondering how the English,” is the first stanza. The line “you may find yourself ” appears another three times, and “you may tell yourself,” twice. The final stanza goes like this: “You may say to yourself / Same as it ever was. / Same as it ever was.” Yes, you guessed it, I am talking of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” The British, as the title of the poem implies, steal in three different ways. In the poem, the British are stealing steel-making technology from India. The poet (that’s me) is stealing lines from the pop song in order to call the British imperialists. But the truth is, I wasn’t stealing in order to call the British first-class thieves but to do something about the long-standing hold this song and its lines have on me. Call it jealousy, not sought-out influence. I stole those Talking Heads lines and used them verbatim in my poetic world—at last making them mine.
Douglas Kearney picks De La Soul’s “I Am I Be” (1993). It all comes together on this one—the opening chorus collage of “I am ——; I be ——” statements is the sonic predecessor of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders cover, but lyrically it sets up a cascading and layered anaphora (which Pos reprises at the head of his first verse and that envoi of a third; and which Dove revises in a kind of phrasal chiasmus as his last line of the second verse). Within the verses themselves, Pos remixes clichés from common English (including “I am an early bird but the feathers are black / so the apples that I catch are usually all worms”); alludes to past examples of people misunderstanding who he is and what he does (“ … to bring the peace, / not in the flower / but the As-salaam Alaik’ and the third I am.”); and, in one of the song’s loveliest moments, says simply: “I cherish the twilight”—a thorn rhyme line (though it’s assonant with “maximized” and “right size”) that, when voiced, sounds almost like a sigh relieving the density of his flow. Dove, ever underrated, abstracts his imagery to the point that I feel I can turn his words like three-dimensional objects shaped in letterforms and what he’s describing. My favorite bars—and I quote this every chance I get to show how dope he is: “I bring the element H-to-the-2 / so you owe me what’s coming / when I’m raining on your new parade”—of course, H2O, thus water. But also, H(ip) H(op) and rap’s association with water (flow, spit); “raining on your new parade” suggests battling but also De La’s place as sly critics of peers from within hip-hop culture. Please. Listen to it right now.
Noah Eli Gordon picks Jawbreaker’s “Lurker II: Dark Son of Night” (1995). Although the band’s single major-label release ultimately failed to garner them the success of their peers like Green Day and other post-punk acts of the early nineties, there’s a near cultlike following for Jawbreaker, due in no small part to Blake Schwarzenbach’s emotionally tinged, sonically attuned lyrics. Rather than the story behind domestic failure and dejection, Schwarzenbach condenses into a series of objective correlatives the emotional tenor of events—the core feelings associated with a postmodern Prufrock: “Two room condo, treeless cul-de-sac. / A nun’s dark habit. All arm, no follow through.” Here, that “All arm” also carries with it the homophonic echo of alarm, doubling the sense of a fraught relationship that is already over just a few lines later: “Hook up the Sega. Have sex alone.” True to his dexterous balance between the sonic and referential potential of words, Schwarzenbach, later in the song, offers another gem of an image in this line about a tree’s fallen fruit: “Dead in sunshine, decomposing there.” That “Dead in” is also a dead end, as well as something deadened. There is between the page and the performance, between the words as written out and the echo each carries when heard aloud, a transformative polysemy, one that, thankfully, keeps Jawbreaker very much alive.
Major Jackson picks the Fugees’ “How Many Mics” (1996). “Problem with no man / Before black, I’m first human / Appetite to write like Frederick Douglass with a slave hand.” The above excerpt from “How Many Mics,” one of the tightest cuts on the Fugees’ classic and impactful album The Score, has graced and blessed my writing space for nearly twenty years now and served as an example of how allusion and metaphor can harness and expose deeper levels of meaning. Of the talented and distinctive trio members whose cypher-like, improvisatory rhyming skills turned them into household names overnight, Wyclef, Lauryn Hill, and Pras, it is Wyclef who slips this bit of subtle black history onto the album and in one of their most successful tracks. Emcees and poets either live or die by metaphor or allusion. In the best-case scenario, metaphors and allusions create bridges, reaffirming shared knowledge, and tap into a reader or listener’s awareness and consciousness, or at worst, they can leave them hanging by their sheer unfamiliarity and novelty. No matter the genre of music, rock, hip-hop, or R& B, I have always gravitated towards those lyricist who reference history, literature, or current events: as a teenager, I thrilled in recognizing that U2’ s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a direct address of the Troubles in Ireland or that the Cure’s “Killing an Arab” was a lyric in the persona of Meursault, Albert Camus’s protagonist in the novel The Stranger. I guess listening to one of my mother’s favorite Marvin Gaye albums, What’s Going On, encouraged me to demand more from song lyrics. It could be said Wyclef built his reputation as a rapper by name-dropping, showcasing his wide range of allusions, and in “How Many Mics,” they are plentiful: by the time he has finished his portion of the song, he plays golf with David Sonenberg; runs through Crown Heights screaming mazel tov; makes deals with Tommy Mottola; wishes to survive like Seal in the song “Crazy”; notices drug fiends dance like John Travolta in the movie Grease; and narrates once getting hit by Guinness stout. But it is his reference to the famous slave narrative The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass that resonates most with me. I have always felt that hip-hop, like poetry, is a question of liberty attained through literacy, one of creation and maintenance of style that sings an individual’s life. To express oneself in words on a page or in a song is one of the highest acts of freedom. As an enslaved descendant of Africans in America, Douglass yearned for freedom, and like many black folk, found learning how to read and write the ticket toward a greater self-awareness and independence. Douglass not only writes himself into freedom but writes himself into existence, inscribes his humanity. That ongoing hunger among black folk, and indeed, in all of us, is reflected in Wyclef ’s words of immense power, yet said so succinctly and wittily, I might add.
Adrian Matejka picks Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (1997). “When I am king, you will be first against the wall / With your opinion, which is of no consequence at all.” Sometimes, Thom Yorke’s lyrics are deeply encoded and need musical gestures to open up for the listener. But other times, as with “Paranoid Android” and many of the songs on OK Computer, the lyrics are so tight and generous to their disconnected, pre-Millennium listeners that no musical exposition is necessary. Yorke’s false bravado in these lyrics captured my frustrations and insecurities (back then and now) with being housed in our amorphous, digital neighborhoods.
Julie Carr picks Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” (2001). John McCrea sings through my car and through my son who is singing along. He’s seventeen. This song, he says, is a lesson in negative space. There’s that break, that longgggg silence just after the first “longgggg jacket”—it’s the Citibank lit up late, the empty moment between swiping your card to unlock the door and the door unlocking. There’s the little exhale after the next “long jacket,” like the breath between high school and college when you’re riding shotgun with your mom but almost done. There’s that gap between McCrea’s “I want a girl” and the backup’s “hey, ho,” “na-na na na na,” which is the space between being the boy dreaming a girl and being the woman who once was one. Then there’s the empty space at the back of the throat, what we named “flat affect” just when he was born, those Citibank years, those temp years, those liquid years strolling on even flatter Brooklyn streets. And then finally there’s that nothing, that rest or that dead space, when the song just cuts right off and the boy is gone.
Adam Bradley is professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Race & Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop and The Poetry of Pop.