Are Lyricists Poets?


This week on Facebook: Perhaps two of the thing that have stuck in my mind associated with music was listening to an aficionado who was in raptures about the tune ‘Begin the Beguine’ and someone writing about lyrics, especially opera, being transposed into english. I don’t remember the sources of either, but the aficionado thought that Begin the Beguine was the only complete story line reflected in the lyrics of a tune and the other writing that words set to music in a foreign language needed great care to be taken when translating the lyrics into english. The latter sentiments intimated in an article written on operavore:

It struck me that opera in English is particular, and often challenging, because our vowels are not always beautiful and unfriendly consonants tend to intrude. The Problem with Opera in English

I can’t answer the question, ‘Are Lyricists Poets?’ with so much obvious disagreement. Latouche and Sondheim clearly disagree but perhaps the question is a lot more complex than it first appears — Latouche may have thought the term lyricist to be somewhat demeaning.

His friend the novelist and composer Paul Bowles recalled that Latouche “made his living writing song lyrics, although he called himself a poet, and bitterly resented my calling him a lyricist.” Words and Shadows

Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Stephen Sondheim

Historically, sometimes lyrical poets and prosody come together. Does the rhythm and pitch (the rap) lose any meaning when not part of a tune? Perhaps the sound of language provides the answer, but doesn’t answer the question, ‘Are lyricists poets?’. Then asking if lyricists wrote poetry is as subjective in today’s parlance.

Lyric poetry expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet and is sometimes contrasted with narrative poetry and verse drama, which relate events in the form of a story. Elegies, odes, and sonnets are all important kinds of lyric poetry. Lyrical Poetry

The central question for the analysis of metre and rhythm is to determine the function which these rhythmical elements perform in each poem. Prosody

The material of rap flow is the sound of language. Rap Science

Trying to research blank and free verse for inclusion in this post, which is essentially about lyricists, led me to the above (particularly in trying to find the connection between blank or free verse and a tune). This left me wondering if blank or free verse had any place in lyrics. Writing in ‘The Demon Lyricist of Broadway’ (5), it is claimed that iambic pentameter and blank verse have their own music . But does such verse have melodic unity, whereas free verse does not? Does a tune only exist, as it is understood in english, as having melodic unity?

The English word ‘tune’ does not have any simple equivalent in other European languages. … A tune is a melodic unit, and typically one that can be sung. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It may also begin with an up-beat, which both is and is not a part of the tune, and the question whether a tone or a phrase is an up-beat is one on which much may hang and which does not yield to an easy answer. Understanding Music

When I listen to music I mostly listen the tunes of The Great American Songbook and so back to my first inclusion of a tune sung by Ella Fitzgerald. This is from the first record that I ever bought some 60 years ago, both Manhattan and Ev’ry Time We Say Goodby on this 45rpm are memorable. Manhattan was written long before movie Words and Music was made in 1948, in fact a short movie about Rogers and Hart was made in 1929 that included ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’. (1)

Set firmly in its timeframe by the lyrics, and laced with Hart’s sarcasm, the tune raises the question of poetry. Does ‘what street’ rhyming with ‘Mott Street’ make it so? Rhyming ‘July’ with ‘by’ may make it lyrical, but does the timeframe and remembering the tune fail to define it as ‘poetry’?

And tell me what street
Compares with Mott Street
In July?
Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by.

Manhattan Lyrics

I love the musicals of Fred Astaire and have a collection of dvd musicals. Top Hat the movie features the music of Irving Berlin and the tune ‘Cheek to Cheek‘ is included below. With many consequences to follow, it may be added that the visual form includes the tune in which musical synchronisation and the inclusion of lyrics (or their inferences) becomes part of the sequence. Often in a tune set to a dance sequence as shown here and here. (2)

Thinking about translations from english into another language took me back to Sondheim and lyrics being written, not just to be sung, but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. So that raises the question of lyrical translations from their original language as in Begin the Beguine (Volver A Empezar — Start Over) sung by Julio Iglesias. To my mind lyrical translations depend on the language used, although the translations usually convey the original sentiments of the song. (3)

Books that contained only lyrics are not new, but were certainly more popular when there was not such a variance in the popular music culture. Here is Johnny Mercer singing The Midnight Sun (lyrics written by him). The tune’s lyrics may become oddly silent without the accompanying tune (unless you know it). However, I think that the lyrics to The Midnight Sun are some of Mercer’s best and reflect the lyricists’ sense of poetry. (4)

Was there such a night?
It’s still a thrill I don’t quite believe;
But after you were gone
There was still some stardust on my sleeve!

The Midnight Sun

I have included a ‘tune’ (not from The Great American Songbook) but which does, to my mind, include rhythm and pitch in both the original language and, where used, a rap in both languages. In the version that I posted, Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli sing ‘Con te Partirò’, with the last syllable of the english ‘goodby’ rhyming with the italian ‘mai’ (single syllable meaning ‘never’). (5)

For a lyrical comparison: Sarah Brightman sings ‘Time to say goodby’ in the second version with english lyrics, followed by Andrea Bocelli singing ‘Con te Partirò’ in italian. 


 1. The Difference Between Poetry and Song Lyrics  It seems absurd to me to contend that lyrics inherently have less literary merit than poetry, or are easier to create, or are less valuable in a cultural or human sense, and therefore somehow do not deserve the rarified title of “poetry.”

2. Lyric Writing vs. Poetry  Since the invention of the printing press, poetry is delivered mainly to the eye. Lyrics are delivered mainly to the ear. Many consequences follow.

3. What to Keep in Mind When Translating Songs It’s no surprise that more and more songs are listened to in Spanish that were originally written in English. Every artist wants to reach a broader audience and for musicians and singers, recording in a foreign language is usually too much to ask. This not only applies from English to Spanish and vice verse, but to/from any language pair.

4. When song lyrics become literature What happens to a song lyric when it lands on the page? It becomes oddly silent but also not silent. Ghosts of its usual rhythms lie at the beginnings and ends of its lines. The blank space around it seems weirdly disconcerting, like white noise. This happens, of course, because a song lyric isn’t poetry.

5. Sondheim, The Demon Lyricist of Broadway Iambic pentameter and blank verse claim their own music, and it is much harder to set a Shakespeare sonnet to a good tune than a poem in ballad meter by Wordsworth.

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