Poetry Plus

I learned early on with Bob [Dylan] that the people he hung around with were not musicians. They were poets, like Allen Ginsberg. When we were in Europe, there’d be poets coming out of the woodwork. His writing came directly out of a tremendous poetic influence, a license to write in images that weren’t in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or typically rock & roll, either.

— Robbie Robertson
Rolling Stone Magazine

There have been past attempts to describe rock lyrics as poetry. My intent is not to suggest that the words to rock songs can stand on their own and survive comparisons to great poems by Shakespeare, Yeats or Whitman. I have something different in mind.

Let me start by trying to define the essential elements of traditional poetry.

  1. Words. That is, poetry is a form of literature.
  2. Wide-ranging subject matter. Poems can express thoughts and feelings on any subject, and are often used for conveying content too personal or individual for other forms.
  3. Compressed meaning. Poems are compact. They use imagery, symbolism, metaphor and other mechanisms to pack a great deal of substance into relatively few words.
  4. Sound effects. Poetry uses techniques such as rhyme, alliteration and meter to help shape the meaning of the words, and to strengthen their impact on the listener.

Now let’s see how these poetic elements show up in rock music.

Words

The first point to be made is that words are absolutely central to rock music. Despite the image of loud guitars, pounding drums and incomprehensible vocals, great rock music has always started with the lyrics. Now this is not to say that the words by themselves constitute great art. Nor is it to say that the words alone even express any original or unusual ideas. But the other elements of rock music shape themselves around the words, extending and strengthening them. If you don’t have words, or the music is in conflict with the words, then you don’t have great rock music.

People sometimes argue that the words in rock songs can’t be all that important, because they are often so hard to hear. Yet there is a sort of holographic quality to great art, in that the message of a piece is embedded in the whole of the work. Art is not a jigsaw puzzle, in which you have to carefully fit together all the pieces in order to see the whole (although we may sometimes dissect it in order to better understand how it works). In the same way that you can cut a hologram into pieces, and still see the entire three-dimensional object from any of the pieces, the impact of great art can be sharpened by an appreciation of the whole, but the impact is not lost if there are a few words you can’t understand.

Let’s look at a few examples from other forms to further make this point. Some of our best films, including Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, and many of Robert Altman’s films, were known for the way in which they overlapped dialogue, having one actor starting to speak before another was done. The effect can be disconcerting, because the practice defies normal cinematic convention, even though it is common in everyday life. The initial feeling can be that you are missing something important. However, this is not the case. While understanding all the lines can enhance an appreciation of such a film, the director has not buried some vital piece of information in any of these lines. In fact, these are cases where the “meaning” of the film is as much in the pacing and timing of the dialogue, as in the contents of the words themselves.

As another example, take Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica. Pick any quarter of the painting and look only at that: the overall intent of the entire work is still clear. Or consider the works of Shakespeare. On the one hand, he wrote poetry in one of the smallest forms, the sonnet. On the other hand, he also composed entire plays in verse. Yet you can consider a smaller piece of one of his plays, such as Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be...” soliloquy, and still extract a sense of the overall theme from the smaller segment.

So if, like Bob Dylan, you first heard the chorus of the Beatles recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as “I get high” — instead of “I can’t hide,” as Lennon and McCartney intended — trust that the intended overall feeling of celebration and liberation were not entirely lost.

Subject Matter

The next point is that rock music has ended up addressing almost every possible subject in its lyrics. In this way, rock music liberated songwriters from the relatively narrow range of content acceptable to pop and blues audiences. To a great degree Bob Dylan led the way in this area, initially writing protest songs about political and social issues, but then transitioning to very personal subjects. But once he demonstrated the possibilities, others followed, and the result was a flowering of lyric content. As an example, take the Déjà vu album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. On this one collection we find songs about passing wisdom from one generation to the next (“Teach Your Children”), the importance of nonconformity (“Almost Cut My Hair”), the inability to escape one’s past (“Helpless”), the nature of the emerging counter-culture (“Woodstock”), an almost suicidal expression of despair (“4 + 20”) — and the list goes on. You may disagree with or dislike some of the content, but then that is somewhat the point — there is enough substance there that you can disagree with it!

To a large extent, as we will see, the increased breadth of interests expressed by rock music was heavily influenced by its primary medium being recordings rather than live performances. Unlike live performances, recordings could be listened to privately, and as often as desired, making the primary mode of appreciation for the art form more akin to poetry than to other musical forms.

Compressed Meaning

In the third area of comparison, that of compressed meaning, we can see that rock music works in a way similar to poetry. Words are used to encapsulate, preserve and amplify a particular experience, sensation, thought or feeling. In the space of a few verses and a chorus, just enough is said to convey the intended meaning. Many rock songs employ a narrative structure, spending their few words to tell a story. In these cases, the story is stripped down to its bare essentials, with just enough detail to make the intended point. Take the beginning to Chuck Berry’s classic, “Johnny B. Goode.”

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens,
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode,
Who never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell.

Note how Berry uses every word to convey meaning to the listener. The phrases “deep down” and “way back” are used to indicate the geographical remoteness of the hero’s origins, but also suggest the placement of his music’s appeal in our collective psyche, as well as the archetypal nature of the story he is about to tell. The name of “New Orleans” is invoked to suggest the richness and depth of the musical heritage Berry is describing. “Log cabin” indicates the humbleness of Johnny’s beginnings, but also gives it nobility, bringing up images of our nation’s origins, and of great Americans such as Abraham Lincoln. “Evergreens” again adds a note of nobility to our hero’s surroundings, and also suggests the ability of America’s music to continuously renew itself. “Never ever” is used as an example of Johnny’s untutored grammatical constructions, while the rest of the line explains why he speaks this way. And then the last line, comparing the naturalness of his musical ability to “ringing a bell” again invokes images of our country’s origins, reminding us perhaps of the Liberty Bell. (By the way, if you are tempted to think that Berry’s song is merely autobiographical, keep in mind that he was born in St. Louis, and was remembered as a good student in school, with a love for poetry.)

Equally important to the success of this verse are the things not said. Johnny’s skin color is never specified. The style of music he plays is never mentioned. “America” is never said, even though it is clear that we are talking about our nation’s musical heritage. Without ever directly raising issues of race, Berry manages to successfully weave images of our country’s Afro-American musical heritage into the larger fabric of American culture. That’s a sizable achievement for a total of just fifty-seven words, and one that would take many more words to say directly in prose — even assuming that the point could ever be made as clearly in another form.

Sound Effects

The final area of comparison is what I call “sound effects.” Rock music uses some of the same ones employed by poetry. Rhyming at the end of each line is an obvious one. Alliteration and meter are also used, as with poetry. Look at the following lines, from the song “Feel Flows,” written by Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley, and recorded by the Beach Boys. I’ve numbered the lines to make them easier to refer to later.

  1. Unbending never-ending tablets of time
  2. Record all the yearning.
  3. Unfearing all-appearing message divine
  4. Eases the burning.
  5. Whether willing witness waits at my mind,
  6. Whether hope dampens memory,
  7. Whether wondrous will stands tall at my side,
  8. Feel flows... (White hot glistening shadowy flows)
  9. Feel goes (Black hot glistening shadowy flows).

Note first the unusual scheme for rhyming at the ends of lines. Including the chorus, and ignoring the background vocals in parentheses, it is ababcdeff. That is, the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, the next three don’t rhyme, and then the eighth line rhymes with the ninth. Note also the effect of this. The alternating rhymes in the first four lines establish a regular rhythm. The lack of rhymes in the next three lines disrupt this pattern, creating a sense of suspense as we wait for closure — an effect mirrored by the meanings of the three lines, all asking questions. The tension is resolved by the last two lines, with their startlingly simple answers and closely-paced rhyming.

Note also the internal rhymes in the first and third lines, with “unbending” and “never-ending” rhyming in the first line, and “unfearing”/“all-appearing” in the third. These additional rhymes increase the flowing regularity of the first four lines.

The next effect I’d like to look at is alliteration. We have the “t” sound repeated in the first line, with “tablets of time.” The “a” sound is repeated in “all-appearing” in the third line. Lines five through seven repeat the “w” sound at the beginning of no less than eight of the nineteen words they contain. And then, of course the last two lines (again ignoring the background vocals) repeat the “f” sound at the beginning of three of their four words. The effect of all this, I think, is to create the sensation of an almost trance-like state, and to give a sense of order.

The last of the three poetic effects I want to discuss is meter. English is a language with varying accents on different syllables, and as a result poetic meter in English is based on varying patterns of stressed and unstressed accents. The metric pattern most common in English is the iamb: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

This is where some of the differences begin to appear between poetry and rock. Accents in poetry are determined simply by the patterns present in the standard pronunciation of the words used. In vocal music such as rock, though, there are a couple other variations. First, the singer can emphasize certain words by making them louder, therefore changing the emphasis. Second, the composer or singer can break a single syllable into several notes, effectively creating additional syllables, or diluting the impact of a single syllable. Let’s look at the resulting patterns of accented and unaccented syllables in these same lines from the Beach Boys, using a “.” to indicate an unaccented, and a “`” an accented, syllable.

  1. .`...`.`.`.
  2. .`..`.
  3. .`...`..`.`
  4. .`.`.
  5. `.`.`.`.`.
  6. `.`.`.`.
  7. `.`.`.`.`.
  8. ..
  9. ..

Note that the meter in lines 5 through 7 is trochaic, starting with an accented syllable and then alternating accented and unaccented. Lines 1 through 4 are partially trochaic, but with some extra unaccented syllables inserted, which add variation and slow the pace a bit, before hitting the relentless rhythms of lines 5 through 7. Lines 8 and 9 are then completely unaccented, indicating the free flow spoken of by the words.

Where rock music differs greatly from traditional poetry is in the additional sound effects available. In addition to the effects available from the words themselves, there are the additional possibilities available from the vocals and instruments. Here rock music was heavily influenced by the blues, with its expressive vocals and instrumentals.

As an example, listen to how D.J.Fontana describes his drumming on the Elvis Presley record, “Jailhouse Rock.”

The choreographer said, “We need a musical thing to go with the dancing.” They wanted to be able to visualize a jailbird breaking rocks. I came up with those [opening snare drum] shots. Me and Scotty started playing it and it worked. (Weinberg)

The best rock music uses the musical elements — the chords, the rhythms, the melody, the sounds of the singer’s vocals, the shadings of the instruments — to expand and reinforce the meanings of the words. In particular, rock music combined the free range of vocal and instrumental expression of the blues with the wide-ranging subject matter and vocabulary of traditional poetry.

The result was a new kind of poetry, one in which all the forces available are brought to bear in service of the words being sung.

Tracks

The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: The Theme of Liberation