The Argotist Online
Jack Foley is a poet and critic living in the San Francisco Bay
area. Foley’s radio show, Cover to Cover, is heard every Wednesday at
3:00 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA and is available at the KPFA web site; his
column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine, The Alsop
Review. His poetry books include Letters/Lights—Words for Adelle; Gershwin;
Exiles; Adrift (nominated for a Northern California Book Reviewers
Award); Greatest Hits 1974-2003; and Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve.
In June 2010, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Berkeley
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?
First, let me criticize the question a little. From a historical point of view,
the distinction between “song lyrics” and “poetry” has always been
problematical. Certain “poems”—“lyrics”—from the Middle Ages were
initially songs: the words have survived but the music has been lost. Many of
Robert Burns’ most famous “poems” were written to existing tunes—so they
were initially “song lyrics,” even though we now experience them as words
only. “Song lyrics” and “poetry” are constantly slipping into one
another’s realms. And yes, I think of my song lyrics, indeed of all song
lyrics, as a mode of poetry—which is why I have done “poetry” radio shows
about songwriters like Cole Porter. The problem I have with the question is that
by asking it in that way, you are concentrating only on the genres song
lyrics and poetry. This may well lead into questions like “What is a song
lyric?” or “What is poetry?” etc. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti regularly
complains that Ezra Pound’s Cantos—songs—can’t be sung.
Ferlinghetti is of course forgetting the fact that Pound’s primary reference
here is to Dante, and Dante’s “cantos” can’t be sung either.) I don’t
think any of these questions will illuminate much of what the real relationship
is, in our culture, between song lyrics and poetry. People were so moved
by Bob Dylan’s song lyrics (and were often so ignorant of poetry) that they
wished to “elevate” the lyrics by referring to them as poetry. And there is
no doubt that you can learn much about many poetic techniques by studying
Dylan’s lyrics. You can also learn much about many poetic techniques by
studying Cole Porter’s words—apart from their relationship to his music. All
that is fine. But if you wish to know the distinction between song lyrics and
poetry as it exists in our culture now—and for many years past—then
concentrating on genre will not get you there. In fact, the generic question
will actively obscure the real relationship between song lyrics and
poetry. The distinction between song lyrics and poetry is fundamentally a
cultural question and relates far more to content than it does to form. What
kinds of things are culturally allowed to be “said” in a popular song? What
kinds of things are allowed to be “said” in a poem? That is the area in
which the distinction exists. When Bob Dylan tried to write about his (then)
Christian fundamentalism in his songs, people didn’t buy his records. There
are only certain things that you “can” write about if you are writing a
popular song—though of course it is possible to stretch the genre in various
directions. Song lyrics limit you to the kinds of things people expect song
lyrics to be about—particularly to the subject of love, its loss, etc etc etc.
To some extent, this kind of limitation is true for poetry as well—but it is
only true for mainstream, “popular” poetry. There is an underbelly of poetry
which pretty much nobody reads—but which is therefore free: it can be about
However: Something did happen to song lyrics during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and that is really the reason why you are asking the question. It is a long story, but in brief: If you listen to popular songs during the 30s, 40s, 50s, you are hearing a structure which is almost always the same. The rhymes are exact rhymes—little to no tolerance for off-rhymes—and the dominant form is thirty-two bars and a-a-b-a: a melody goes on for eight bars; it is repeated; another melody occurs; the first melody repeats again. One of the most important facts about “popular” songs is that people have to remember them—otherwise they will not be “popular.” The a-a-b-a structure is in effect a teaching device. You state a melody; you then repeat it. You then go on to another melody. Have you lost the first melody? Have you forgotten it? No, here it comes again! The repetition of the initial phrase encourages us to remember it. Some particularly subtle lyricists reinforce this structure in their lyrics by including subliminal suggestions that the listener should remember the song. Both Irving Berlin and Cole Porter do this regularly and sometimes brilliantly (think of ‘Remember,’ think of ‘Begin the Beguine’) but perhaps the prize should go to Herman Hupfeld, whose song ‘As Time Goes By’ begins, “You must remember this….” Poetry of course is under less pressure to be memorized in this way: indeed, one poet, James Scully, argues that one of the things that “free” verse frees us from is the necessity to phrase the poem in a way that can easily be memorized. Behind the “standards”—interesting word, that—being produced in the 30s, 40s, 50s is a tradition of popular poetry—poetry that people did indeed memorize as they memorized songs. This poetry was widely prevalent during the 19th century, and while it did not follow the a-a-b-a form of popular songs, it was highly formal and—as with “standards”—its rhymes were exact. Its themes were limited as well—love, mother, home, patriotism were among the strongest—and it was light years away from the experiments that other poets were making in the 1920s. These poems were read, memorized, even recited in vaudeville halls. (Kipling’s ‘If’ and ‘Gunga Din’ are good examples.) Folk music existed during this time of course and it was being created with great vigor. But it was in no way “mainstream popular music”: that place was occupied by standards, the a-a-b-a form (which is not the ballad form). What happened during the late 1950s and early 1960s was that the “standard” form of songwriting began, finally, to lose its stranglehold on popular music. Some of its greatest practitioners (Porter, Berlin) were still alive but no longer producing work of the caliber they did earlier. Young songwriters began to look elsewhere for their models—and the place where they looked was folk music, with its very different structure—based in ballads—from standards. Folk music was having a “revival”—it had begun to be “collected” during the 1930s—and people who at one time would have been listening to Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin were now listening to very different kinds of music. (The New York City Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s was very important here: it was the scene out of which Dylan emerged.) And along with folk music was the immensely energetic form of rock n roll, then primarily a music for adolescents (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) but having a tremendous impact. Elvis of course belongs in this story as well. What happened was that “standards” were replaced by forms rooted in ballads—whether blues ballads or other kinds. America’s popular, mainstream music suddenly shifted. It was now beginning to be based in folk music, with its ballad structures and its inexact rhymes. People like Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and Alan Lomax are important here. And of course Jimmie Rodgers—the first “country” singer to be widely popular. Frank Sinatra remained a mainstay of standards, but singers like Ray Charles—who began by doing Nat King Cole imitations—made a strenuous effort to combine performing standards with performing the newer (older) folk-based music, particularly as it manifested in the blues. African-American performers—who, with a few exceptions, had been carefully kept out of mainstream contexts—were beginning to enter the mainstream in ever-growing numbers, and they often brought with them a different sense of language (something closer to their own street speech) than one found in standards.
is of course more to this story—the radio, the phonograph, movies and
television were important aspects as well. But suffice it to say that song
lyrics were considerably affected by the shift. Occurrences in poetry were also
causing changes in song lyrics. One of the effects of free verse was to root
poetry in what you “feel” rather than in “technique.” In popular music,
the sense of the singer’s and the song’s sincerity overrode the
“cleverness” of the lyric: the lyric was to be sung “from the heart.”
The immense “cleverness” of a Cole Porter—“Flying too high
with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do,”
five closely-placed i rhymes and then “nothing”—began to seem
false, artificial. Part of the immensely popular Beat phenomenon was its
emphasis on the poet’s truth-telling and its consequent dismissal (to some
extent) of form as such. Jack Kerouac was saying, “But I want to be
sincere.” This was also happening in the music industry—the popular
music industry. Standards began to seem less “real” in their
emotions—less sincere, precisely because they were too careful with their
forms. But the thematic limitations of popular music remained. No one could have
written “Howl” as a popular song.
Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
is definitely easier to memorize something that rhymes—rhymes function as a
mental reference point—than to memorize something that doesn’t, though
actors in plays by Shaw or Shakespeare accomplish this quite regularly.
Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as
clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can
also be like free verse?
of “songs” are like free verse—cf. the magnificent songs of Charles
Ives—but if you are speaking of popular songs, then you are going to
have difficulty getting people to listen to something which isn’t recognizably
When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to
the music you enjoyed?
Yes, I did. At Cornell, I learned, someone—M. H. Abrams?—used to give a
regular lecture on Cole Porter as a metaphysical poet. And the Brecht/Weill
songs certainly functioned in the area of poetry/song.
Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your
Yes, the language of poetry in books was essentially the language of song
lyrics—minus the “thou’s” and “’tis’s” of course. You wanted to
keep song lyrics closer to speech. Your questions don’t mention this, but in
some of my songs, I try to mix “song” elements—melody—with “speech”
elements. Part of the song is sung to a melody, but part is simply spoken to a
chord background. This technique is hardly original to me, but you can get some
interesting effects with it.
do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
of course because songs are promoted far more than poetry is. (There’s a lot
more money behind getting a song out to the public than there is to getting a
poem out.) But it’s also the fact that songs deal with emotions that people
readily recognize as their own—emotions which are not, to use Thoreau’s
word, “examined.” Though there are plenty of poems that promote the status
quo and its version of reality, there are even more songs that do the same
thing. The status quo of course changes over time, so that things that seemed
“real” and affecting in the 19th
century—keeping father out of the barroom, for example, or longing for your
mother—no longer seem “real” to us. I sometimes say, “Without self-pity
there couldn’t be popular songs.”
© Jack Foley