Poetry in motion: the nature of lyrics

Should lyrics be given the same respect as poetry?

Kate Tempest onstage with a microphone
Source: Flickr

With the recent publication of Kate Bush’s selected lyrics, How to Be Invisible (Faber & Faber), the question as to whether lyrics should be considered poetry’s equal – which has remained for me a pressing one ever since I first fell in love with Lana Del Rey one lonely January in 2015 – demands interrogation.

The novelist David Mitchell, in his introduction to Bush’s collection, seems anxious to maintain a distinction, describing the lyrics in the book as “presented in a poetry format […] but […] avowedly not poetry”. He talks of lyrics on a page as “a boat in dry-dock”, without the “elements that buoy them and determine their velocity”. Yet I would call into question the extent to which this is true of Bush’s lyrics, or indeed those of any songwriter.

Perhaps when reading lyrics outside a musical context we do not experience them as the song from which they originate but as something entirely new, which is itself no less valid. Is it not a productive act to have the lyrics “buoy[ed]” entirely by the reader, without the influence of music to establish an over-arching mood, a tempo, and an intensity? It is a process which must, by virtue of its difference, generate new, alternative readings, and is this not the nature of literature? When Mitchell says that Bush’s lyrics “work […] in similar mysterious ways” to literature, does he not mean that they in fact are literature themselves?

This question of lyrics as literature is by no means untrodden ground. Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 sparked debate, and the publication earlier this year of Florence Welch’s book of lyrics and poems Useless Magic blurred genre lines further still. It is interesting that in her preface Welch describes her songs as “bigger and stronger than [she] is”, whilst the act of “just writ[ing] something down and let[ting] it stay there, on the page, seems to [her] an enormously vulnerable thing”. What Welch is touching upon here is the same “buoy[ing]” up identified by Mitchell, but where for him the music serves to determine the inferred meaning from the words, for Welch, music is an act of retreat behind sound when worlds alone say so very much. This is literature’s strength piercing the medium of song.

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In the preface Welch goes on to describe how, for her, poetry and lyrics “have started to bleed into each other”, yet much the same can be said for all number of artists. Lana Del Rey, for example, in her 2012 EP Paradise, takes the name of her song ‘Body Electric’ from the Walt Whitman poem ‘I Sing the Body Electric’; the music video of her single ‘Ride’ draws heavily in its imagery from the poems of Allen Ginsberg, an influence which sees its culmination in her 2013 short film Tropico with its direct quotation of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Likewise, the Tennyson quote on the back cover of Bush’s masterpiece The Hounds of Love is just one example of the rich intertextual tapestry so characteristic of her work, and Mary Oliver begins her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings with Bob Dylan epigraphs: clearly, lyricists can’t escape the influence of poets, and vice versa.

Lyrics, then, seem hardly to differ from poetry in any substantial way. Indeed, the two media can often be in dialogue with one another to such an extent that they become one, as in the work of poet-cum-rapper Kate Tempest (for example, Let Them Eat Chaos). The only real difference between a set of lyrics and a poem of Bush’s How to Be Invisible is that the lyric-writer will make far more liberal use of repetition than most poets would allow themselves to, as if somehow, we expect more of words when they are meant for the page; demand that each one mean something new and take us a little further onwards towards meaning. Perhaps – erroneously – we expect more from words when they are written down. Should we not treat our lyrics with the same respect as we treat our poems? And should we not be as kind to our poems as to our lyrics, forgiving when reiteration is all poet has to offer? Because a song is as much a poem as a poem is a song, in that both linger in the mind, and change the way we see the world around us. So the next time someone suggests to you that those lyrics you prize, those lyrics that you hold fast to your heart in the night, those lyrics that saw you through, are not worthy of the name ‘literature’, you need only keep in mind Bush’s refrain from ‘The Song of Solomon’: “Don’t want excuses, yeah / Write me your poetry in motion”, such poetic movement being the true nature of lyrics.