American Culture

Poetry and lyrics are not the same thing: Hegemony, part 2

I’m tired of hearing that rock stars and rappers are poets. They’re nothing of the sort.

A couple weeks I go I offered up part one in a series on poetry vs. lyrics, noting from firsthand experience the differences between the two. In brief, I’ve always felt like it was wrong to call rock stars poets – even if their words are fantastic, as they often are, the very nature of bending words to suit a song structure makes what they do a very different thing from what poets do.

In that piece, I looked at the song version of “Hegemony,” which I penned for Fiction 8‘s most recent CD, Project Phoenix. “Hegemony” was adapted for music from an existing poem, which I wrote for my most recent book, Chained to the Gates of Heaven (a book that is in search of a publisher, by the way – so if you know somebody….)

In this installment, I want to walk through the poem version, and in doing so, I can hopefully illustrate the distinctions between the two forms – both in terms of the writing process and the finished product.

Part 2: Examining “Hegemony,” the Poem

First, here’s the poem. Forgive the inelegant font treatment, but by using preformat tagging I can preserve the spacing and line breaks.

Hegemony

His face
a tattoo of stars:
Mr. Black Sky is in the house.
Pump the blue lights, sister.

Scarecrow, stovepipe
diamonds in his teeth,
pocketfuls of insurgency...

	there’s music behind the moon, children,
	and rhythm in those cobalt suns

	touch me, touch me now
says Aphrodite, her divine instrumental,
her junta of House,

	her Olympus of lasers like
	a drill through the ears...

Call us partisans, I guess,
scene of the seen
cell of our selves
too self-conscious by half
slamming in prisons of syntax

	touch me, she said,
	Apollo will be home soon...

Then René said
Ma vie est une emplacement-spécifique non-documenté
art d’exécution – ummm, how you say,
performance art?
			And we all laughed:
René
	works at Gap
	reads Derrida
	takes courses at Phoenix
	dances all night at exCathedra

dangles between abyss and verge,
his culture a curvature,
an apotheosis of grind.

Professor Metropolitaine says I’m losing the battle of signification:

	you have a universe of vocabularies to
	flush from your head

But my therapist says it’s okay to embrace my rage
so now I can’t decide between

	cleanse and purge
	evaluate and judge
	strobe or coruscate
	lover or confessor
	destiny or fate or
	syzygy

Deus in machina:
this is our jungle, our Monet
painting a bridge through
cataracts –

this is the bargain we’ve struck with the world.
One tribe, one throb, a
frequency of dust.

Quickly, she says:
the Sun King ripens in me.

This version of the same core work is obviously quite different from the lyric. Structurally there’s none of the symmetry demanded by the musical form, which means longer lines, stunted breaks, a more relaxed pacing (or pacing that accelerates and decelerates according to its own logic), and so on. As a writer, what this means is that the words are marching to my beat, whereas in a lyric (or, for that matter, in formal poetry styles) I’m less free to unwind.

There’s another source of variation at work, as well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in a poem the writer is encouraged to be more “literary” – duh – and cliché is the kiss of death. Poetry is one of the least “popular” of art forms – that is, it cares the least about connecting with a wider audience, even less than the most obscure forms of literary fiction – which means it’s driven by precisely the opposite dynamics of popular music. While they don’t expect to be in the Top 40 anytime soon, I imagine Mike and Mardi would love it if Project Phoenix sold a few copies, so there’s a pronounced desire to connect with an audience. For this reason, I can’t really indulge the full-blown literary impetus – I have to engage the listener and don’t have a lot of time to do it.

This doesn’t mean I approach the lyric looking to embrace any and all clichés, but when dealing with a popular (vs. academic or high/elite) audience, some shortcutting is not only necessarily, it’s often desirable.

So let’s dive into the actual text.

His face
a tattoo of stars:
Mr. Black Sky is in the house.
Pump the blue lights, sister.

The open is largely the same as the song, although without the regular meter. The last line here – the call to party time, which borders on religious invocation given that the speaker is Baron Samedi – didn’t find a home in the song because the form didn’t really accommodate it the way I wanted. I like the energy it infuses, but with the song, the music was already establishing the energy for me.

Since a lot of my poetry plays with popular tropes in some way or another, I frequently find myself employing tactics that help signal the context that words can’t fully replicate. You see an example in the next section, with the indented fourth and fifth lines. Here I inject some meter in order to make it sound more musical. Ironically, the lines had to be altered so that they would actually work with the real music in the Fiction 8 tune.

Scarecrow, stovepipe
diamonds in his teeth,
pocketfuls of insurgency...

	there’s music behind the moon, children,
	and rhythm in those cobalt suns

	touch me, touch me now
says Aphrodite, her divine instrumental,
her junta of House,

	her Olympus of lasers like
	a drill through the ears...

A lot of the images in this passage occur in the song, although they’re more spread out there. In the poetic iteration Samedi/Mr. Black Sky appears in closer proximity to the drug imagery, the political undertone, and Aphrodite herself – who is named much sooner here than in the song. The result is that the players, their relationships and the context are established more quickly and overtly than in the song. Put another way, the formal demands of the song altered the story by forcing some of the core elements apart – there simply not being enough room for them within the confines of the first verse – so early on we begin to see that the poem and the song are leading the reader/listener in different directions.

One specific example: the male protagonist who appears throughout the song really doesn’t exist in the poem. He was developed as for continuity, and also as a projection of Mike Smith, the singer who’d be performing the song. In the original, Samedi assumes more of the subject role instead of being more of a background character.

Call us partisans, I guess,
scene of the seen
cell of our selves
too self-conscious by half
slamming in prisons of syntax

The nature of the song – the form and the audience consideration taken together – forced the exclusion of this last line, which I actually like a lot because of all that’s going on. “Slamming” is both a dance and a spoken word signifier, and “prisons of syntax” is, I fear, a slightly self-conscious foreshadowing of what’s going to happen when I start adapting this for music (the poem came first in this case, although I write the other way around on occasion, as well). In any case, language is a restricting force for those in the culture here, and you’re free to decide for yourself whether the problem is the inherent limitations of language (and form) or instead has to do with a particular inarticulateness on the part of the players.

	touch me, she said,
	Apollo will be home soon...

My poetry tends to be a little unruly at times, to the point where it drives some readers (and at least one former committee chair) crazy. While I may be worse than most on this score, I suspect the same would be true for our great lyricists were they to abandon the lucrative world of rock stardom in favor of the slightly less glamorous life of a poet. Open forms invite all kinds of exploration, and without the structural demands of the song they might find their own writing and thinking wandering.

The opposite happens when you move from poetry to lyric: I feel like the form of the song version compels some order on my thinking and expression, and we see a snippet of why here. There are multiple voices throughout, and like one of my heroes, TS Eliot, I don’t feel any real compulsion toward linearity. In the original poetry, you have voices entering and exiting, banging into each other blindly, and so on, but in the song they’re more coherently arrayed – mainly because I felt like they had to be.

Next, we meet a character who doesn’t appear at all in the song.

Then René said
Ma vie est une emplacement-spécifique non-documenté
art d’exécution – ummm, how you say,
performance art?
			And we all laughed:
René
	works at Gap
	reads Derrida
	takes courses at Phoenix
	dances all night at exCathedra

dangles between abyss and verge,
his culture a curvature,
an apotheosis of grind.

René – the would-be intellectual working a dead-end job and attending an online college that isn’t likely to help him attain any sort of credible degree toward a social theory career – offers up an all-too-familiar does of ironic, double-reverse Gen Xer self-deprecation. He sees the futility of his path, hides behind sarcasm and embraces the nihilism of the never-ending nightlife because it seems at least as valid as anything else within his grasp.

René’s frustrations are echoed by the collective – the Chorus – in the song, but the open form of the poem allows him to appear and make his own case in ways that wouldn’t quite have worked in the song form. For starters, it would be a trick to take these words and bend them to the meter and rhyme scheme. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine making René’s story interesting for a rock song audience, even an intelligent one that shares some of his challenges (which is certainly true of Fiction 8’s audience).

Then we meet yet another character who doesn’t appear in the song.

Professor Metropolitaine says I’m losing the battle of signification:

	you have a universe of vocabularies to
	flush from your head

But my therapist says it’s okay to embrace my rage
so now I can’t decide between

	cleanse and purge
	evaluate and judge
	strobe or coruscate
	lover or confessor
	destiny or fate or
	syzygy

This character, based on a woman I once, ummm, crossed paths with, has found some sort of bizarre liberation in the decontextualized words of a very Eliotean scholar character. She’s clearly confused – his words have, in her mind, provided her with justification for an incoherent, unfocused rage, but that perceived validation hasn’t led her to any kind of resolution.

Look at the language, though, then go back and find the words that also appear in the lyric. In both cases we see an ill-fated attempt to find something that works – anything that works – but in the open form I was able to let the madness run free. In the lyric we wind up with something neater, more cleanly articulated. The woman here is enraged, while the woman in the song is more deliberate.

Put directly, not only are the voices tonally different, these are different characters entirely.

Deus in machina:
this is our jungle, our Monet
painting a bridge through
cataracts –

this is the bargain we’ve struck with the world.
One tribe, one throb, a
frequency of dust.

The Chorus works through an iterative series of potential resolutions in the lyric, and the reason was pretty transparent: the song needed a chorus, and that demanded a measure of repetition. So I pulled the concluding sequence here and parsed it out for the song, but in doing so, added and built in a progression.

Of course, this fundamentally changes the piece. Here, we have the degenerative “frequency of dust,” and are never taunted by the ascending variations that occur in the song.

Quickly, she says:
the Sun King ripens in me.

The song ends with something that may feel like an anthemic exaltation – the “frequency of free” – although the invocation of hegemony (especially in its neo-Marxian sense) undercuts it.

Here, though, my natural tendency as a poet kicks in. Instead of tying things up neatly, I conclude the poem by kicking the doors open. The final gasp of “Hegemony,” the poem, is an indefinite, open-ended sequence where Aphrodite embraces her divine infidelity, intertwining the decadent and the generative: she’s pregnant with the pagan Sun King and who knows who the father might be?

This conclusion, of course, has damned near nothing to do with what transpires in the song.

In Conclusion…

Obviously I can’t speak to the writing process employed by The Matrix (although listening to their songs makes me suspect they don’t over-intellectualize quite as badly as I do). As such, I’d never assert that what I describe above and in the earlier post is somehow representative of other writers.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say of what value this analysis will be to you. Not everyone who writes lyrics is a poet or vice versa, and nothing I say is going to deter people from statements like “Dylan was one of the greatest poets of his generation.” All I can do is note how the two things are, well, two things. Writing lyrics is not writing poetry, and as a guy who does both I can speak with at least a little authority on the subject.

More specifically, “Hegemony” lets me illustrate my case in a unique way, and that perhaps will cause some of my readers (all eight of you) to revisit the songs they’ve always thought of as poetry.

In the end, I hope you listen to more music and read more poetry. They’re different art forms, but they’re wonderful art forms, and these days we take our inspiration where we find  it….

5 replies »

  1. Bah. You already know I’m pretty clueless about poetry. I critiqued CttGoH a while back and obviously didn’t get a lot of it. And this was one of the harder ones for me, if I recall. Even your explanation here is mostly over my head. It doesn’t help that I have to look up “hegemony” in the dictionary every time I see it, either. I get a few lines here and there. The Rene character sounds familiar enough. I like the language in parts, like “his culture a curvature”, even when I’m not entirely sure what it means. I’m less thrilled with the homophones.

    All that being said, I’m still not convinced poetry and lyrics can’t be the same. It’s harder, I’ll admit, but I still think it’s possible. And it requires a strong background in both poetry and music theory. The result would probably never be mainstream ’cause it would require all sorts of weird meter signature changes. Forcing your stuff into a 4/4 just isn’t possible without ripping the heart out of it. I think it would be more like jazz, I guess. (Or maybe even some prog-rock stuff. Try headbanging to DreamTheater and you’ll see what I mean. It can’t be done unless you know the song. And no, i’m not saying DT is poetry. I think the words are far less important to them than showing off how good they are with their instruments).

  2. Interesting! I’m not very good at theorizing (?), and to be honest I’ve never really been interested in this debate because, as you rightly say, the two things are largely two things. Both commendable, but different.

    But you also have to look at why one would choose lyrics or poetry. In many cases, the lyricist is given a melody and has to do his thing with what is given. However, I do know composers (just a few) that enjoy a more challenging meter and can play with that. Elton John writes his melodies from words, I hear.

    Also, most lyricists have a burning desire to be heard and hopefully understood by large numbers of people and will therefore work at making the lyrics accessible at different levels – from the catchiness of the chorus to the depth of the verses. I think U2’s Bono is the best example of this. Everyone can sing along to the chorus, and the verse provides a different level of emotion.

    Check this:
    http://www.a-lyric.com/archives/bono-talks-about-new-song-wave-of-sorrow/

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