Want to write better lyrics and fall in love with songwriting all over again? Read poetry. Here’s how to start.
You may have heard the phrase “Music is a language.”
The inverse is equally true: language is music.
Have you ever spent time listening to a language you don’t speak? The cadences, the sounds of the consonants and vowels, the inflections…I could listen to French, for example, all day. Go find a French person, give her a big stack of legal fine print to read aloud, and switch a microphone on — I’ll buy a 10-disc set of that. I don’t understand a word of French, so it all sounds like poetry to me.
And actually that’s what poetry is all about: the sounds. The rhythms. The cadences. The beauty of language itself.
As songwriters we share whole horizons of common ground and history with poets. There’s a long tradition (we’re talking centuries and centuries) of classical composers setting poems to music. The word “sonnet” literally means “little song”. The word “lyric” itself originally referred to short, personal poems starting about five centuries ago. More recently, Leonard Cohen published several books of poetry before ever releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. And this is just skimming the surface.
There are countless intersections between poetry and lyric writing. The two art forms are simpatico.
As a songwriter, anything you can learn about the craft of poetry will put you at an advantage in writing lyrics. Even the simple act of reading poetry will dilate your sense of what’s possible in lyric writing far, far past the limits of mainstream music. It’ll infuse your mind with fresh images, connections, and ideas. It’ll trigger memories and ideas that are uniquely yours.
All that, yes—and aside from all that, reading poetry is a joy in its own right.
Poetry is Subtle
Most of us don’t read online–we skim. And quite honestly, that’s the appropriate way to read most of the blog posts, newspaper articles, and other ephemera that we encounter on a daily basis–there’s too much to read, too many voices clamoring for our attention. Very little of all that noise is relevant to us. By all means, skim to guard your time.
Poetry, though, is different. A poem may be short, but skimming it won’t yield any of the art form’s pleasures.
When reading poetry, it’s best to read slowly. Deeply. Rather than just skipping your eyes over the surface of a poem like a stone, try to really enjoy every word, every line.
This might sound like a bit of work–and that’s fair, it does require more thought than watching the average TV show–but reading poetry is also intensely rewarding. Given the onslaught of information each of us endures daily via digital devices and stressful day jobs, I think you’ll find reading poetry is quite a refreshing change of pace once you adjust to it.
You can start absolutely anywhere, but I’d suggest finding at least one decent anthology of poetry to begin with: a volume with a wide variety of different authors that you can leaf through.
- Here’s one that costs a dollar new and a cent used.
- A much larger Penguin anthology.
- The Oxford Book of American Poetry.
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry—expensive, but worth it.
Open to absolutely any poem you like. Take a breath. Slowly read.
The first reading of any given poem may puzzle you somewhat. If you own the book, there’s nothing wrong with lightly underlining passages that spark your interest or baffle you. Go ahead and read again, from the beginning. Use a dictionary to look up any words that you don’t understand–now and then you’ll even discover that a familiar word teems with other uses that you never knew about.
Capture Your Reactions
Consider writing a few sentences reacting to the poem. You could do this in a notebook, in the margins of the book, or in a blog. Or if you like, read aloud with friends (feel free to send them this article) and then discuss the work. Which passages do you especially like? Dislike? Which parts of the poem confuse you?
As with anything in life, you’ll encounter poems that you find sweet, poems that you find bitter. Some will seem perplexing; others will resonate with you so deeply that you feel physically shaken by the power of the words staring up at you from the page.
Whether you personally enjoy the tone and topic of a poem or not, you can learn from the work of any dedicated poet. If a particular poem knocks you out, consider shopping for a volume of that poet’s best works.
Read slowly. Savor. React. Take notes. I find this works best for me in a quiet room with a silenced phone. Poetry is powerful, but it also requires active focus and concentration–and I’m far too easily distracted by that incoming text message tone.
Well, what’re you waiting for? Make some time–I suggest about half an hour–to settle in with a beverage and some poetry. Just to see what happens.
If you’re too impatient to wait for your anthology of choice to come in the mail, and you’d like to get started right away, you can find some great poems about lust, war, dreams, love, and grief online at poets.org.
photo of woman reading by smplstc