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August 26, 2008


A beautiful post, and I agree (with you -- and Poe). Something is always lost when songs, meant to be performed and recorded, are printed on the page. You beautifully make the case for Dylan as poet, then you invoke the principle that honors the distinction between different art forms.

As a practical matter, for what it's worth, when I edited "The Oxford Book of American Poetry," I felt no temptation to include the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and others whom I love as dearly, or nearly. Ira G. would have been the first to denounce the "poetic" claims made for lyrics. (What all of them were too modest to say is that the craft of fitting words mosaically to a Gershwin tune or writing a stanza to quicken the composing impulses of Jerome Kern was arguably more difficult and more deserving of praise than almost anything a modern poet can do.) Yet I felt there were compelling reasons to include a Dylan song as a poem. Perhaps there is no logic to such a decision, you operate by instinct and think of reasons afterward, but I sometimes wonder whether the explanation is that the words in some Dylan songs are less dependent on the music and the presentation than is true of the lyrics of "Lovely to Look At" or "The Lady is a Tramp."

Thanks, David. What an intriguing notion that some lyrics can be "less dependent on the music and the presentation." That insight merits attention. I wonder what differences there are between the two types of lyrics and whether other lyricists can match Dylan. Among popular songwriters Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell come to mind as candidates. You mentioned Lorenz Hart. His rhymes are so clever and so intricate sometimes that I wonder if he can be included as well, or, if not, why not. You've given me some interesting questions to think about!

On This American Life about 9 months ago, there was an episode called "The Break Up". In it, one of the regular TAF reporters is heartbroken, and she decides she needs to write a song about the relationship--although she plays no instrument and she cannot sing. Her goal simply is to write the LYRICS--and knowing fine musicians--she plans to find a composer to help her "set" her song.

I know this post seems a bit circuitous, but there's a point in here somewhere.

Ultimately, the reporter begins a series of telephone conversations with Phil Collins who explains to her the difference between clever lyrics and a moving break-up song. He makes it clear that very simple, even "purple' phrases can work in a song because of the setting--words that wouldn't work in a poem.

By the end of the podcast (originally a broadcast), I had an instinctive sense of why and where excellent lyrics can diverge from poems. It helps to hear her swap out phrases, and to hear her favorite sample songs side by side.

The podcast is worth tracking down.


Thanks for the tip, Jenny. I'll try to find it. The whole notion of music covering up simple phrasing that wouldn't be accepted in written poems is very interesting.


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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