The Common Controversy: Are Popular Song Lyrics Poetry?

Probably the least known controversy arising from President Obama’s invitation to rapper Common (a.k.a Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr) to the White House’s May 11, 2011 poetry reading is whether a rap artist is a poet and whether rap qualifies as poetry. The question is a bigger one — essentially, it comes down to the deceivingly simple inquiry, “Are popular song lyrics poetry?”

As far as I know, the “Common controversy” was first raised by Kevin D. Williamson on a May 12, 2011 short piece for National Review Online. Therein, Williamson objects to having to pretend “that such semi-literate rodomontade as Common’s constitutes poetry.” Williamson certainly doesn’t, and adds for good measure, “If you think [Common’s work] is poetry, you are a boob, and your aesthetic judgment should not be taken seriously.” While he’s at it, Williamson swipes at contemporary poetry too, which he calls “mostly a racket,” and ends his diatribe with this gem: “Politics is full of barbarians who ought to be kept well away from our cultural institutions, such as they are.” (One would tend to pay closer attention would he not protest so much.)

While I am all for the separation of art and state (Dr. Goebbels, anyone?), I can not justify criticism of President Obama for having a White House event that showcases poetry. That’s orders of magnitude away from, say, establishing a Department of Culture that must pre-approve every art exhibition that opens, every movie made, and every poem published. However, my aim here is to discuss the question of whether song lyrics are poetry.

The initial answer is simple: in our tradition, poetry is not set to music. If a lyric is set to music, then it is a song (whether folk, pop, or rap) and not a poem. Bob Dylan and Tori Amos are excellent lyricists, but they are first and foremost singer-songwriters — that is, writers of lyrics set to music. Rap artists also belong to this tradition, be they Public Enemy, Missy Elliot, or Common. They do not, strictly speaking, write poetry as that term has been understood in the West for the past 200 years or longer. That their lyrics have elements of poetry (and that those lyrics are a lot better than a lot of “poetry” being written today) is undeniable. But those lyrics are considered something different, something else, something that is “not poetry.” I am not sure this is a satisfactory state of affairs.

Poetry, someone said, must mean something or it means nothing. If anything can be “poetry,” (including Dylan lyrics or rap songs) then the term is meaningless. For there to be “poetry,” there have to be some things which are “not poetry.” The only question is where to draw the line. Are the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” poetry? How about the lyrics to South Park’s “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch in D Minor?” If some lyrics can be poetry, why not others? To me, the issue is not one of quality or artistic worth (is a poem demonstrably “better” than a song lyric?) but one of definition.

The history of the lyric (as in, lyric poetry) goes back to the Greeks (of course), where “lyric poetry” meant poetry accompanied by a lyre or other musical instrument which was sung rather than recited. Thus, the origins of lyric poetry were actually musical. Before there were recited or read lyrical poems, there were sung lyrics.

This changed, of course. By Roman times, Catullus and Horace wrote (not sung) lyrical poems, and later, Callimachus, Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid followed suit, their “lyrics” being written poems dealing chiefly with romantic love as they understood the term.

As time went on, the pendulum swung back towards lyrics set to music, and Medieval Europe went medieval for lyrics addressing courtly love sung by troubadours in the 11th Century and onward. By the 14th Century, however, the pendulum had swung yet again, and Petrarch developed the sonnet as a written lyric — later to be modified into the Elizabethan sonnet immortalized by Shakespeare in the late 16th Century — as a form of (written, not sung) love poetry.

In the 19th Century, the written lyric became the dominant European poetic form (as opposed to dramatic or epic poetry). Some argue that the lyric became synonymous with poetry itself. Certainly the greatest English-language poets of the age wrote lyrics: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti, as a quick list. In contrast, the musical lyric became the stuff of music halls, operetta (think Gilbert and Sullivan), vaudeville, and on into what is now known as popular music (from, say, lyricist Beth Slater Whitson to singer-songwriter Common).

The confluence of ”lyric” and “poetry” in the 19th Century had at least two effects. First, it led to the supreme dominance of lyrics as the literary poetic form of choice, which endures to this day. Lyrics, it seems, is all poets write anymore, even though no coherent definition for the term exists. As poetry critic David Orr has stated, the only thing we seem to be sure about regarding the lyric is that it is overwhelmingly popular.

Second, and more importantly, the confluence of “lyric” and “poetry” divorced the popular, sung “lyric” from the literary, written “lyric.” Rather than seeing the two as very closely related forms of the same genre, a split occurred between “poetry” and “song.” This understading of the terms is ahistorical. Simply put, both lyrics to be read and lyrics to be sung are fruits of the same tree. If anything, written lyrics owe sung lyrics their existence, as the Greeks will attest.

The question “are popular music lyrics (including rap) poetry?” misses the point in my view. Poetry encompasses many forms, and the sung lyric still retains the conventions of “poetry” (rhyme, metaphor, imagery, and so on).

I would suggest returning popular song lyrics to the fold of poetry, not as an opposite to written poetry but as a companion to it. And I would suggest defining “literary poetry” as just one of many subsets of poetry, not the only and certainly not the one with the biggest audience these days.

And so, let us rephrase the question. No, popular song lyrics, including rap, are not literary poetry. But are they poetry?

You bet. That is not to say all popular lyrics are good. But neither are all literary poems good. And certainly, no one can argue that literary poetry has a monopoly on quality or relevance these days.

Additional Resources:

Bob Dylan, I’m a Poet, and I Know It

The Platonist, Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Rob Woodward, Lyrics Poetry?



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