Poetry Set to Music – Just call it a songPosted: August 16, 2021
Poetry comes in many forms. There is free verse, rhymed poetry, blank verse or metered poetry, syllabic poetry, (such as hiaku on tankas), epic poems, narrative poetry, pastoral poetry, and sonnets, just to name a few. I’m partial to rhymed poetry, although I was warned away from it in school. I love rhymes of Dr. Suess and Shell Silverstein, and I love playing with rhyme and alliteration in my own poetry. Wordplay makes writing, (and reading), poetry fun. Poetry forms with structured rules, such as villinettes or syllabic poetry don’t come as easily for me.
I think it must be even more difficult to write poetry put to music, but if you think about it, many songs do use alliteration and rhyming, and this is perfectly acceptable in the song writing world. But what is a song, if not a poem set to music? Even many of the nursery rhymes that were handed down to you as a child have been put with a popular tune, making them more memorable: Old King Cole, Ring-Around-the-Rosy, London Bridge, Jack and Jill, etc… Below are some lyrics to some popular songs that use rhyming, but if you had never heard them, and didn’t know the tune, all you would see is poetry.
Winter nights we sang in tune
Played inside the months of moon
Never think of never
Let this spell last forever
Heart – Magic Man
Drowning nightly in deep blue seas
Waves of sadness swallow me
No soul can hear me beneath the waves
No gods, no saviors, no hands of fate
The Pretty Reckless – Only Love Can Save Me Now
Poetry uses language to paint vivid mental pictures and tell stories, as can be seen in the lyrics below. Fleetwood Mac uses similes and metaphores to paint a mental picture for the listener in some very poetic ways in Rhiannon, and Jethro Tull’s lyrics in Locomotive Breath conjurs some unusual images, as well.
Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night
And wouldn’t you love to love her?
Takes to the skies like a bird in flight
And who will be her lover?
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
In the suffering madness
Of the locomotive breath
Comes the all time loser
Headlong to his death
He sees the piston pumping
Steam breaking on his brow
But Charlie stole the handle
And the train, it won’t stop going
No way to slow down.
Jethro Tull – Locomotive Breath
Narrative poetry tells a story in verse, as do many songs. Narrative songs that come readily to mind include The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot, Running Bear by Sony James, and One Tin Soldier, by The Original Caste. Here, McGraw tells a story of the growth of first love in his song, Don’t Take the Girl. (And it rhymes.)
Johnny’s daddy was taking him fishing
when he was eight years old
A little girl came through the front gate
holding a fishing pole
His dad looked down and smiled,
said we can’t leave her behind
Son, I know you don’t want her to go,
but someday you’ll change your mind.
Tim McGraw – Don’t Take the Girl
I’ve listed the handful of songs above with the names of the artists who sing them, but that’s another way songwriters and poets are alike. Both get very little recognition for their writing. Often the singer is not the songwriter. Songs may be peddled among singers, as was the case with That’s the Night that the Lights Went Out in Georgia, (written by someone named Bobby Russell), which Cher turned down before Vicky Lawrence ended up cutting the record. Magic Man was actually written by the singers, Ann and Nancy Anderson, and Rhiannon was written and sung by Stevie Nicks. Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips of The Pretty Wreckless wrote Only Love Can Save Me Now. But, Don’t Take the Girl was written by songwriters Craig Martin and Larry W. Johnson, Locomotive Breath may be sung by Jethro Tull, but it was written by Ian Anderson.
It’s customary for songs to be identified with the singer, rather than the song writer, and poets don’t become famous until after they are dead. Song writers are the unknown poets of the music world.
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