Saturday, 26 May 2012

In Your Dreams

By Ashley Lister

Oftentimes, whenever I mention to someone that I enjoy writing poetry, they say: “Oh yes! I write song lyrics. That’s the same as writing poetry, isn’t it?”

Honestly, if you listen carefully after someone’s said that statement, you can hear the enamel cracking from the pressure as I grind my teeth together. The composition of poetry and the creation of song lyrics do not involve the same skills. It’s like comparing Leonardo da Vinci’s Sistine chapel with a newly whitewashed lavvy ceiling. Yes, both involve the application of paint to the top of a room – but it is not the same.

To illustrate this point (and I’m aware I’m in contentious territory here) I’ve taken the liberty of copying some song lyrics:
Dream, dream, dream, dream
Dream, dream, dream, dream
When I want you in my arms
When I want you and all your charms
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is
Dream, dream, dream, dream.

All I Have to Do is Dream (1958)
Written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant
Performed by The Everly Brothers

Q: Is this poetry.
A: No. It’s just drivel.
Whilst this employs many of the devices associated with poetry it is not poetry.
It employs repetition. It employs a rhyme scheme. Some might argue that it uses a metrical structure but they’d be wrong. The word dream (sung most famously by the Everly Brothers as ‘Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam’) is not metrically correct unless the speaker has some sort of larynx problem, or a very unusual stutter that falls on vowels (which would be unusual because the majority of stuttering occurs on consonants). Even so, this would be a sign of disability rather than a metrical scheme.

Q: Does it express a poetic sentiment?
A: Only to imbeciles and the clinically deranged.
The persona of this verse is using the word dream repeatedly. It could be said that he or she is using the word repeatedly to foreground their obsession with an unnamed fetish to the extent where he or she is dreaming their life away as they constantly think about this person.

More accurately it could be said that this is sexist twaddle and indicative of an unhealthy mindset.
The persona is patently male. The persona wants to physically possess the (female) object of the song (I want you in my arms/I want you and all your charms). From this we can see there is no poetic device in use. This is not a metaphor. He simply wants her in his arms. She has no name or identity beyond being the object of his psychotically unwavering lust. In some regards it’s quite disturbing that the persona here is so obsessed. Clearly he wants her in his arms solely for the purposes of sexual exploitation. And I’m assuming here that the word charms (in the second line quoted here) is a euphemism for her fanny.

I could go on to analyse this in further depth but I suspect I’m already annoying fans of the wonderful Everly Brothers so I’ll simply say there are some good songs out there. But writing songs is not the same as writing poems and I think I’ve just proved as much.


Ashley R Lister said...

I should note here:

David Riley has been kind enough to gently remind me that the painter of the Sistine/Cistine Chapel was Michelangelo and not Leonardo da Vinci.

In my own defence, I can say that I at least knew it was one of the turtles, and it's easy to confuse them because they all wear masks.

Sincere apologies to all readers for my ignorance on this point.


Lindsay said...

Great post Ash, made me chuckle this sunny morning. Very true. I bet you hear that a lot, I wouldn't want to be your dentist.

vicky ellis said...

Ash, you just reminded me of what Ryan said when we came out of our final exam: "Now I'm Master Splinter." There really aren't enough TMNT references in popular culture are there?

Having written both songs and poems I agree that you can get away with very basic sentiment in a song which would not fly in a poem. Having said that, there are some really complex lyrics which put the lie to that:

Poison and Wine
by The Civil Wars

You only know what I want you to
I know everything you don't want me to
Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
Oh you think your dreams are the same as mine
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
I always will

I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don't have a choice but I still choose you
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh I don't love you but I always will
I always will
I always will
I always will
I always will
I always will

Extremely repetitious, yes, but complex and metaphorical? Also yes. Morrissey, Tori Amos, Kate Bush...There are lots of songwriters who disprove your theory. Unfortunately the songs which are most often played on the radio are pap. There are also plenty of poems which can't rival some of these lyrics. But if we're going with the majority, I guess songs do tend to be a simpler art form.

Ashley R Lister said...


Glad to help start the weekend with a chuckle.

When I hear it from people with some talent for writing, I'm honestly intrigued. But when I'm hearing it from someone who can't construct a sentence, then the grammar Nazi in my soul comes out and I start to get all pious (as shown above).


Ashley R Lister said...


You're absolutely right. I think that there are times when song lyrics can be extremely complex. For me this happens best in musicals when the song is relevant to the narrative but is making a point on an abstract concept outside the musical.

But I figured I'd have a whine about dumb lyrics today because I don't think we whine about lyrics enough nowadays :-)

I shall now have to listen to Poison and Wine as this isn't a song I've encountered before.


Anonymous said...

Ha-ha, what a load of self-important drivel. It amounts to little more than "Look at us poets, we're soooo much better than those bumbling lyricists".

I think you know that, deep down, you're comaparing apples to oranges here. The two disciplines have practically nothing in common other than writing down words that may (or may not) rhyme. A poem is, in most cases, meant to be read and absorbed at the reader's own pace. A song is meant to be heard and therefore needs to have a more immediate impact.

It's also worth noting that a poem stands up on it's own, the work of one person. A song however, no matter how well crafted lyrically, lives or dies on the music that surrounds it. The poet doesn't have to give their work away to people who might render it worthless, the lyricist does.

It irks me greatly when people refer to songwriters like Bob Dylan, Morrissey or Mark E. Smith as "poets" because they're not. They're songwriters and bloody good ones too!

The cynic in me thinks that this rant is at least partially fuelled by the fact that, compared to poets, a significantly higher percentage of songwriters can actually make a living (or become hugely wealthy) off the back of their labours and more people have actually heard of them.

Ashley R Lister said...


Thanks for your comments. I'm glad my self-important drivel entertained you.