Friday, 13 August 2010

That old chestnut

Two different views of the old 'lyrics as poetry' debate here and here - it also touches on the 'it's not like it was in my day' argument. For what it's worth, I don't think there's been any great change in the quality of lyrics, or rather in the proportion that might be considered as of poetic value on their own. On the other hand, I often don't want lyrics to work as poetry - that's why they're set to music in the first place.


Rob Spence said...

As a big fan, I'm always disappointed that the Clive James / Pete Atkin collaborations are not mentioned in these discussions. Six albums in the 70s, and more in the recent revival. For intelligent, 'poetic' pop, can't be beat, in my opinion. has all the information you could possibly want.

Steven Waling said...

Proof positive that even Clive James can right decent poetry, Rob.

Shame he can't reproduce the skill he shows there without Pete Atkins' input...

Ben Wilkinson said...

Thanks for flagging up these, Matt. Some interesting stuff, but really just the same, tired old arguments as you say.

For what it's worth, I'm still of the opinion that a poem creates its own music out of words; your memory of a poem being the poem. Song lyrics are set to music because they require music to animate them - they don't possess the singularity that a good poem does. Think I'll wait for a more compelling argument than Taylor's to convince me otherwise.

I mean, say someone presents something to me as a poem, and say I'm happy to accept it as a poem, for that reason alone. What matters is whether it's any good, and whether it succeeds as such, right? Problem is, all the song lyrics I've read as is, on the page, don't work as poems - they lack any internal rhythmical pressure; the music is either flat or isn't there at all. So either you don't count them as poems, or you view them as pretty bad poetry.

What I really don't get, though, is why people like Taylor need to label certain song lyrics as poems in the first place. What does it achieve? Great songs that incorporate lyrics speak to thousands and thousands of people - why do the lyrics alone need to be categorised as poems, a view which only damages them, placing them under a kind of scrutiny they can't sustain?

Taylor's final comments say it all, really. You have to wonder: if he'd encountered those Cathal Coughlan lyrics he quotes as just that - lyrics on the page, without accompanying guitar - would he sing their praises quite so loudly? Or would he pass over them in the way he does "most of what gets chewed over by the poetry mafia of the Times Literary Supplement"? I doubt Taylor reads much of what the TLS reviews, in pieces commissioned from reviewers far and wide. Though I'm happy to be part of his fictitious gang if it makes him feel any better.

Matt Merritt said...

Yeah, that pretty much sums up what I feel, Ben. I don't really understand why there's a need to try to tell people that some song lyrics are poetry - if they were, why would the writer bother adding a musical element.

I must admit, I've never been a fan of Clive James' poetry on the page (although, I'm prepared to admit that might be because I still bear a grudge against him for inflicting his bloody awful TV show on the British public for so many years), but you're dead right about the stuff with Pete Atkin, Rob. Much more interesting, IMHO.