Poetry Set to Music – Just call it a song

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Music as Inspiration or Copyright violation?

Using Lyrics in Your Fiction

2020 saw the birth of the book I’m currently working on, and it was all inspired by music. In fact, the female lead character, Amaryllis is based on the music of Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless. So, I had this great idea to set the tone and offer a glimpse into the thoughts of the pov character for each chapter with a snippet of lyrics; lyrics from The Pretty Reckless for Amaryllis, and lyrics from various artists for the male lead, LeRoy. It’s a time-travel story, titled The Outlaw & the Rock Star. The only catch is, an author has to be careful not to infringe on the copyright when using lyrics in her fiction.

Copyright, whether in the literary arena or the music industry, is serious business. Artists and writers protect that which they have created, as they should. As a writer, I can’t imagine the outrage I would feel, were I to learn someone else had infringed on my copyright. My words are my creation. They came from me. No one else on the planet can write them in just the way I wrote them, unless they steal them. And, let’s face it folks, theft is what copyright infringement is. So, I get why writers and artist want to protect their creations. I want my work to be protected, too.

According to Matt Knight on in “Using Lyrics in Fiction” (5 January 2019) on Sidebar Saturdays, obtaining copyright permission for song lyrics involves a ton of research into who actually holds the copyright, and then contacting them to request permission to use specific lyrics in your fiction, and pay the requested fee to obtain copyright permission. It can be both expensive and time consuming.

Knight offers a few ways around obtaining copyright permission, including only using the song title, since titles cannot be copyrighted, or using a small enough portion of the lyrics so that you can claim fair use, or choosing different lyrics from the Public Domain realm. Since this one of my characters is based on the music from one specific band, using Public Domain lyrics doesn’t seem to be an option. Since the lyrics are going to be used to set the tone of the story, using only titles wouldn’t really work. I really feel the story would loose a lot if I don’t include the lyrics, although I might be able to trim some of them a little.

So, I’m left looking at researching each individual song and contacting each copyright holder to gain permission to use their lyrics in my work, which seems like a lot of work. In the case of The Pretty Reckless, I will need copyright permission for multiple songs, so it may be an up hill battle, and it could get very expensive.

I can do the research and strive to obtain all the copyright permissions that are needed. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that part, or that I think it will be easy, but nothing good ever is. I’ve only written about six chapters, but my heart is already invested in these characters and their story. This is going to be more of a project than I realized when I concieved of the idea for this book. Here’s hoping this venture doesn’t cost more than I can afford.