Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Song Writers Vs. Poets

by lizard

Jeff Tweedy is a talented song writer, but when I thumbed through a collection of his poems, titled Adult Head, I found his assuming the role of poet to be a bit presumptuous.

I found an interesting article talking about this phenomenon, titled When Bad Poetry Happens to Good Rockers. Here is a snip from the article:

In the writing of a great lyric the intrusion of Mind is to be avoided: States of possession recommend themselves. Kurt Cobain wrote great lyrics because he was out on his feet, on the nod, mumbling and screaming in his sleep; Johnny Rotten because he was fizzing with blind, rodent-like fury; Lennon and McCartney because they liked to compose with the TV and radio on, mail being delivered, phones ringing, and all sorts of people dropping by — a continuum of distraction they called The Random. Oasis, for the purpose of writing great rock lyrics, pretended they were stupid.

Then there are the rock poets: the conscious ones, addressing themselves to the ages. They do not regard their work as disposable. Lou Reed, who studied poetry under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse, published his selected lyrics in 1991 under the deeply pretentious title “Between Thought And Expression.” Patti Smith published a huge book called “Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections” (1999). Now Jeff Tweedy, leader of the band Wilco, has become the latest rock notable to — in the words of Dickens’s Silas Wegg — drop into poetry.

A much less well known rocker, David Berman of the Silver Jews, made a much more significant poetic contribution IMHO with his book Actual Air. Here is a good review, which opens with this:

Few lyricists’ songwords could stand up to the blank scrutiny of ink-on-page, printed in the cold light of black-and-white far away from the safety of sentimental chord-changes and musical meter. David Berman’s could.

That lead-in gives a good explanation of why so many song lyrics can’t stand alone as poems. Below the fold is a poem from Berman’s Actual Air, and a bonus tune from his band The Silver Jews. Enjoy.



When something passes in the dark
I make a note on a pad kept by window.

Candlelight wobbles on the walls,
over the baseboard electrical outlets
that look like primitive swine masks

and I can’t remember if I read or dreamed about them—
a sect on the Mayflower called the Strangers—
four or five adults who gathered in the hold
and spoke to no one through the three month passage.

When the boats landed on the beach
they walked into the North American forest
and were never seen again.

I put my book down and come to the window
where curtains are fastened to the sides
so it is like looking out at the world
through the back of a teenage girl’s head

and my signature is drawn in magic marker
on the lower right hand corner of the window

so when something passes in the dark
it’s captured for a moment inside my work.

I come to the window and title the eras
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,

and watch the wind in the tension of the blown trees,
the moon illuminated by my attention.
When something passes in the dark,
I try to tell its side of the story.

“I am passing someone in the dark,” it thinks…

—David Berman


  1. While I appreciate the attempt (and the poetry) I simply have to make a personal observation: Comparing lyrics to poetry may be less mistaken that including dadaism as art (and Rap as “music”), it still is a mistake in a general sense. If a musician holds himself out to be a poet then the poetry needs be be judged outside of his music and vis versa. That’s not to say than a lot of lyrics are not poetic. Surely many are. But it’s the music that adds the texture more often than not. A great poem to shitty music is still shitty music. A great song with shitty lyrics can still be a great song. For example, few don’t tap their toes to Louis Loius – what has to be among the worst “poetry” ever written.

    • lizard19

      i mostly agree, Dave.

      this post is really just an extension of a personal gripe i have with musical artists that get books of poems published more because of merchandizing than actual poetic talent. I’m thinking of artists like Jewel and Billy Corgan.

      • Your peeve with the undeserved vicissitudes of poetry economics aside, you’ve piqued my interest more by only “mostly” agreeing with me. What, prey tell, could you possible find objectionable. ;)

        • lizard19

          i’m just not sure how much i agree with the lyrics/poetry dynamic being analogous to the dadaist/art and rap/music dynamic. i’d have to think about it more.

          • That would be me being a semantic smart ass. Don’t think about it too much.

          • JC

            Well, there’s always that sentiment: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

            Those (“elites”) who study poetry, art and music have different opinions of their relative worth than those who just “listen” to songs, “connect” with lyrics, and “appreciate” visuals like dadaism.

            After all, most of the truly great poets, lyricists and artists were never appreciated for their talents and accomplishments until after their deaths. There are exceptions of course, but most of those exceptions were thrust onto their pedestals by pop culture.

            Hence the efforts of the marketing machines behind the likes of Jewel and Corgan to elevate their efforts far above where they eventually rest once history sets in. Unsettling and phony, not unlike the campaigns of Cain and Perry…

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