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Songs and Poems 




Jeffrey Side

(First published in 2010 in Pirene's Fountain



What is it about a song that makes it superior to a poem? Is it the melody or the vocal rendition? Is it the lyric? Is it the musical arrangement? No doubt, it is all of these things, but for me the main answer is that songs generalise whereas the majority of poems today do not. When I say “poems today” I am referring mainly to contemporary mainstream poems, those with which the majority of poetry readers will be familiar; in other words anecdotal and descriptive poems that contain very little ambiguity or mystery. Because of this, such poems fail to enable a reader to personally identify with them. Indeed, the majority of these poems are intended solely as vehicles for information transfer, information that could just as easily be conveyed in a prose form. Such poems are written merely to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation, or place experienced, or in the act of being experienced. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether readers can personally identify with the poem, so long as they understand clearly the information the poet is trying to convey. This may consist of some “important” insight gained from an experience, or it could be a prosaic statement or commentary about some commonplace aspect of contemporary life. 


Songs, though, do more than this. They excite both the imagination and emotions; they enable you to unlock your own highly personal box of images, memories and associations. At one time, poetry was also able to do this because, like song, it utilised generalisation but since Wordsworth (and largely because of his influence) poetry has become more novelistic and descriptive. Before Wordsworth, poetry (the sort written by William Blake or Thomas Wyatt, for instance) was closer to the song or ballad tradition, in that it tended to avoid descriptive elements. As is well known, song predates poetry—or rather, songs became poems once they were written down and read privately. 


The limitations of poetry that does not generalise are plain to see if we compare some lines from one with those of a song. First the poetry—a stanza from Frank O'Hara's ‘Cambridge’:


It is still raining and the yellow‑green cotton fruit

looks silly round a window giving out on winter trees

with only three drab leaves left. The hot plate works,

it is the sole heat on earth, and instant coffee. I

put on my warm corduroy pants, a heavy maroon sweater,

and wrap myself in my old maroon bathrobe.


What we see here is prosaic and descriptive prose that leaves little to the reader’s imagination. In contrast to this, let us look at some song lyrics, one by Leonard Cohen and two by Bob Dylan. In Cohen’s ‘Night Comes On’ from the album Various Positions, we have this verse:


I said mother I’m frightened,

the thunder and the lightening,

I’ll never get through this alone.

She said I’ll be with you,

my shawl wrapped around you,

my hand on your head when you go.

And the night came on,

it was very calm.

I wanted the night to go on and on

but she said go back,

go back to the world.


Unlike O’Hara, Cohen is not averse to generalising. Consequently, this verse is loaded with interpretative possibilities. From the beginning of this verse, ambiguity is allowed to operate in that we cannot be certain if the speaker is addressing his actual biological mother or whether  “mother” is a metaphor for God or “Mother Nature”. Similarly, we cannot be sure whether the thunder and lightening that frightens him is literal or metaphorical. The imprecision surrounding his fear serves to enrich listeners’ experience of the song and allows them to decide for themselves the precise nature of this “fear”. Moreover, this imprecision allows for numerous enquiries. The speaker’s mother tells him that she will be with him when he goes. Where is he going? Is he going into the fearful situation represented by the thunder and lightening? Is this situation an existential experience analogous to what Christian contemplatives have referred to as “the dark night of the soul”? Is the “night” in ‘the night came on’ also metaphorical? Perhaps, it stands for a feeling of comfort and reassurance brought about by the knowledge that his biological mother/God/Nature is with him in some sense. If so, does he want it to continue? He probably does but something tells him to ‘go back to the world’. Who tells him this: the “mother” figure or the “night” (whatever the latter represents)? That this verse can invite such questions indicates its superiority to the O’Hara stanza quoted earlier.


Similar ambiguities and the questions they prompt can be found in the following verse from  Dylan’s ‘Changing of the Guards’ from the album Street Legal:


Fortune calls.

I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace,

Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down.

She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born,

On midsummer’s eve, near the tower.


Like Cohen, Dylan is not afraid to generalise. He is also unafraid to mix poetic registers, instances of which are his use of archaic-sounding phrases such as ‘I stepped forth’, ‘smelling sweet like the meadows’ and ‘on midsummer’s eve’ alongside the more demotic ‘last deal gone down’. This adds a linguistic variety whilst paying homage to his poetic inheritance. The verse states at its beginning that ‘fortune calls’, but we are not told for whom. Is it for the speaker? Is it for the listeners? Is it for humanity in general? Dylan leaves the choice up to us. The verse then introduces a persona with ‘I stepped forth from the shadows’ but this persona is not developed or elaborated upon, and we are left guessing as to its identity. Even the word ‘shadows’ (so vague that Pound surely would have frowned upon it) leaves open innumerable interpretive possibilities. Furthermore, phrases such as ‘merchants and thieves’, and ‘hungry for power’, not only function as specific symbols for corruption, decay and amorality, but as more general statements about the nature of the human condition.  In addition, more questions are prompted by the figure of the woman. Who is the woman who is ‘smelling sweet’? How is she like the meadows? Why is the word ‘meadows’ plural—how can she be born in more than one meadow? Is the meadow a meadow? If not what does it symbolise? What is the tower—is that symbolic also? 


Similarly with Dylan’s song ‘The Wicked Messenger’, more questions are raised than answered. The first verse is:


There was a wicked messenger

from Eli he did come,

with a mind that multiplied

the smallest matter.

When questioned who had sent for him,

he answered with his thumb,

for his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter.


We note immediately the presence of ambiguity with the line: ‘from Eli he did come’. We are not told if Eli is a place or a person. The name has biblical connotations and can easily be a person. In the Old Testament Eli was the judge and high priest of Israel and although loyal to God, his reluctance to remove his two corrupt sons from the priesthood resulted in disgrace.  Dylan’s lack of indication as to whom or what Eli is allows us to perhaps see a biblical reference in the name. If we take the name as referring to the biblical Eli then we have to ask the question: If the messenger was sent by Eli (who was a faithful servant of God) why is he seen as wicked? Is it because his mind ‘multiplied the smallest matter’ (possibly meaning he was neurotic), or that his ‘tongue it could not speak, but only flatter’ (possibly meaning he was a liar)? Are these common human failings sufficient grounds for someone to be designated as wicked? Alternatively, perhaps the messenger is wicked because there is a crudity about him—he ‘answered with his thumb’ (he gave the finger, perhaps?). For want of detailed information, we simply do not know.


Still more mysterious is the line: ‘When questioned who had sent for him’. This alludes to the possibility that perhaps Eli is not a person but a place since whoever sent for the messenger was requesting it from another geographical location than the one the messenger inhabited. If Eli is a person, then Eli would have been the one who sent him—there would be no need for a second person to request it.


With the second verse we have:


He stayed behind the assembly hall,

it was there he made his bed.

Oftentimes he could be seen returning,

until one day he just appeared

with a note in his hand which read,

‘The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning’.


From the first two lines of this verse, we obtain the impression that the people of the community he has entered have shunned him, which has forced him to live in less than hospitable surroundings. There is irony in this, in that his bed is behind the assembly hall—a place that one often associates with the (usually friendly) gathering of a community, yet he has been isolated. With the line: ‘Oftentimes he could be seen returning’, more questions are prompted. From where is he returning? Is it from Eli (be it a place or person)? What is the reason for the frequency of his trips to and from the community? Is he on some secret errand—if so, for whom? When he does return from one of his trips Dylan describes it as: ‘until one day he just appeared’—no one has seen him returning on this occasion. The note he is carrying which reads: ‘The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning’, seems ominous. Does it indicate some sort of eternal judgment and damnation for him and/or the community? The final verse is:


Oh, the leaves began to fallin’

and the seas began to part,

and the people that confronted him were many.

And he was told but these few words

which opened up his heart

‘If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any’.


The first two line of this verse have apocalyptic connotations. The falling leaves evocative of decay and death and the parting seas connoting massive geological and meteorological upheavals redolent of End Time prophesies. Such is the message that he delivers to the community that he is confronted by them with the words: ‘If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any’. As I have attempted to demonstrate, the songs ‘Night Comes On’, ‘The Changing of the Guards’ and ‘The Wicked Messenger’ utilise vagueness and ambiguity to allow the listener to create highly individualised interpretations.


In conclusion, then, each reader should be permitted the fundamental privilege of formulating a meaning which would (for that reader) be the quintessence of the poem's significance. The poem, in and of itself, is of little consequence other than as a cipher for this practice to occur. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that enable readers to recall their own experiences, reflect present circumstances, and anticipate future desires. Each word should be twisted, stretched, moulded and free-associated from in order to signify anything the reader wants them to signify. By doing this, the reader becomes, in effect, the composer of the poem, and the definer of its limits. Such an approach to reading poetry, if widely understood and accepted, could possibly restore poetry to its status as an important and popular art form. 




copyright © Jeffrey Side


Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.