Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now that we have pop music, why do we still need poetry?

The Professor of Pop poses this question as a comment to last week's post on poetry and popular culture.

It's a good question; one that probably should be asked more often, but instead, poets, professors and publishers of poetry merely ask: why don't more people read poetry? Inquiring instead into poetry's necessity is an altogether different and more meaningful project.

Liking poetry to music is even more interesting, and it raises some important points about cultural associations we make with various genres. The poet Robert Bly once remarked that he was jealous of musicians because their work goes straight to the heart. Bly lamented how, in the United States, poetry seems to get log jammed in the brain, only rarely trickling down to the emotional register of the "heart" or "soul." Indeed, we all know the sensation of a really phenomenal song and how viscerally we react to it--even over the entire course of our lives.

For better or worse, our brains (and perhaps also our bodies) react differently to words than to music, and here is where I would say poetry differs from pop music and why we need both. Pop music is largely about sound and a little bit about language; poetry on the other hand is largely about language and also a lot about sound.

For example, I truly love Nirvana's music. Nevermind is a great album with exceedingly poetic turns of musicianship. However, there is really nothing about the lyrics that is linguistically transformative. Some of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is catchy, but most of the song is a string of cliches. Even worse is the Professor of Pop's bailiwick, Led Zeppelin, which also happens to be one of my favorite bands. That said, almost no band has worse lyrics. Either the words are pinched from old blues songs or pinched from earnest but freaky tales about gnomes, Mordor, and may queens. And, after films like This Is Spinal Tap, those kinds of over-the-top I-am-trying-very-hard-to-be-deep lyrics just come off as high camp. But, the guitar riffs on "Whole Lotta Love," the vocals on "Black Dog," and the entire side two of Led Zeppelin III are musical "genius"--the term traditionally used to describe writerly talent.

We need poetry because popular music can only do so much. Lyrics in songs with driving riffs or thumpy back beats are always going to be the chaser to the music's bigger drink. What's more, since we communicate with each other through language, we need something in that realm that turns the same words we use at the grocery store, with our children, on the phone with customer service, and in bed with our partners into something not ordinary, not commonplace, not quotidian. Popular music--as a whole--just doesn't (and can't) do that, but at its best, poetry does.

We need poems because they help put us in right relation with each other and the world. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger claims we need poetry because "the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy." Langston Hughes, the great African American poet once wrote that "poetry is the human soul entire, squeezed, drop by drop, like a lemon or a lime, into atomic words." That's pretty heady stuff, but thankfully, poetry is both a lot more and a lot less than that.

Still we need both music and poetry because we don't want holiness or Madonna all the time. Sometimes we want a funny poem by Billy Collins or Sherman Alexie or Russell Edson. Or, we want a funny song, like "Little Ghost" by the White Stripes or the Gourds cover of "Gin and Juice." Sometimes we want Radiohead, and sometimes we want Emily Dickinson.

Poetry can do a better job of not taking itself so seriously, and it should market its levity and its windows into the modern dilemmas of love, politics, language, culture, and existence.

But, there will always be room for both popular music and poetry if, for no other reason than, when you are on a date, you do not--and trust me on this--want to try make out to a recording of Ezra Pound reading the first poem from The Cantos . . .


  1. Ok. So my all-time favorite pop song? "A Whiter Shade of Pale." I can't help it. I also can't tell you a single whole line of lyrics, but who cares? It's gorgeously psychedelic and brings back my whole sophomore year of high school. I rest your case.

    Do hope you'll be giving Hesiod a footnote on the 'Works + Days' thing, though I'm partial these days to Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, which would not be, if you think about it, a good title for a pop song.

  2. One of sixteen vestal virgins? And her face has burst just ghostly?

    That's the best I can do . . .

  3. David Byrne said either: music is a way of getting people to listen lyrics, or lyrics are a way of getting people to listen to music. I wish I could remember which! It is in the liner notes for either Stop Making Sense or Speaking in Tongues.

    Scott Andrews
    Pasadena, CA

  4. My view is that Dean is right about poetry. I'll have something to say about his thoughts on pop songs in a forthcoming blog post.

  5. Good music lyrics are poetry. A good lyric should be able to stand on its own, even while read without music.

  6. Actually, the division is quite arbitrary. Historically, the ancient Greeks did not distinguish poetry from music: all music included lyrics; all poetry was intended to be accompanied by music.

    Also, in other cultures - Ukraine and Russia, for example - it is common for rock musicians to collaborate with poets, setting the poetry to music.