The Difference Between Poetry and Lyrics: A Crash Course in One Way to Read Poetry

I have had the opportunity to take several poetry classes (and even succeeded in earning passing grades). In every one of the workshops that I’ve had in this genre, there’s always a person or two who says something along the lines of : “Poetry today is music.” Meaning that music lyrics are today’s version of old-school poetry.

Well, sort of. As my teacher, David Keplinger (awesome instructor, check him out at American University in Washington D.C.–Director of Creative Writing: Careful girls, you’ll automatically have a crush), put it: music depends on on the music to get the emotional response. You can have pathetic lyrics and still have a great song–note the amount of Top 40 hits with Yeah, Yeah, Yeah in the lyrical layout.  You can have a moving experience with music that has no words.  Guitars, violins, kazoos…they all serve to fill in the spaces.

Poetry depends on the rhythm of the words (syllables, pauses, meter, etc.), the way the words are juxtaposed (rhyme, blank verse, line breaks, etc.). The closest thing that music has is, believe it or not, rap. Yep, Eminem probably has more in common with T.S. Eliot than Celine Dion.

To keep it easy, let’s just look at word juxtaposition (how words are placed near one another) and let’s look at P.G. Wodehouse–because he’s our mentor and he’s also written poetry and musical lyrics.

Check out the following stanza from “The Infant in Arms” (You can check out his other poetry at that site as well.)

“And when the days are dark and cold,
When it either snows or pours,
You’ll shift the scene of your daily toil,
And do your work indoors.
And toy with someone’s “Modern War,”
Or KIPLING’S martial verse,
Or while away the hours of rest
At Kriegspiel with your nurse.”

Now, without thinking too hard about it–what sticks out to you? For me, it was Kriegspiel. Why? Because it’s German and we already know about Wodehouse’s experience during WWII. Plus, Kriegspiel is a war game, like Risk or Chess. And if we look at the title, we see that Wodehouse is talking about an “Infant in Arms”–so now we have children who haven’t left the nursery (the word “nurse” gives that away, right?) who are playing German war games. Connect the dots. Now it’s a political commentary, yes?  

So that’s one way of getting into a poem: check out the key/odd words and see what they’re placed near. Compare the title to what’s presented in the text.

The other bit, if you take a peek, is there’s a rhyme scheme. Pours and Indoors. Verse and Nurse. (For those technical scanners, here ya go: ABCBDEFE.) This creates a sing-songy element–which is interesting because we’re talking about small children and sing-song is the whole purpose of nursery rhymes. But it’s just an echo, helping reinforce how the subjects (war and children) don’t fit together.

Rhyme shows up in musical lyrics too, no doubt about that. But generally (nowadays) it’s not in such a recognizable pattern as ABABCDCDEFEFGG–and ten points if you name the type of poem that rhyme scheme belongs to!

I’m not going to go into meter. (Mostly because I’m listening to music and listening to a different beat is not conducive to looking at meter….) Plus I’ve gone on at quite a length already!

So, let’s look at some lyrics by Wodehouse, from the show Show Boat, here’s “Bill”:

He can’t play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn’t half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn’t tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can’t explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.
He’s just my Bill an ordinary man,
He hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.

Okay, so there’s some rhyming. But, if you look at word juxtaposition, there’s nothing surprising or switch-it-up. It reads fairly plain on the page. The woman’s talking about Bill, and you can hear the sweetness when she talks about him. But if you’re looking for emotional impact–well, it’s kind of boring. That’s because lyrics depend almost entirely on the performer and the music to deliver.

Take those same words, and listen to Ava Gardner deliver the goods:

Works a little differently, doesn’t it?




5 responses to “The Difference Between Poetry and Lyrics: A Crash Course in One Way to Read Poetry”

  1. Debbie Avatar

    Thanks for clearing up the difference between poetry and lyrics. Makes sense.

    Interestingly, Wodehouse is not credited on either movie version, nor for the Broadway show. Oscar Hammerstein takes all the credit for lyrics. Wodehouse does show up as a librettist for “Anything Goes.”

  2. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    Yeah, I was having trouble finding him credited for much. So I took Wikipedia's word. =)

    But he did a lot of lyrics, and was pretty active in the Broadway musical scene. (Check out his work at IBDB–it's the broadway database and credits him on Show Boat)

    Plus (and this shocked me when I found it): There's a whole textbook on the subject.

    So if anyone's got a spare $70:

    The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse, edited by Barry Day (I haven't read it, but it lists Show Boat in the table of contents)

  3. Debbie Avatar

    You are so on top of it.

    Oh, and “What are Shakespearean Sonnets?”

  4. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    dingdingding! Deb gets the ten points: What are Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnets! for the rhyme scheme question.

  5. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Aww, I was just coming by to say sonnets! Well, also to say, another great post! I'm tone deaf, but I try hard to hear the rhythms in poetry because I enjoy it so much (well, of course I love music too, but at least I can try writing a poem or three. Couldn't write a song if my life depended on it).

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