Chapter 16: The poetry of pop

Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 10:05pm
By Pablo Tanguay

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, an anthology of essays about the intersection between formal poetry and modern song lyrics, is divided in two. The first half theorizes a strong interconnectedness between poem and song, while the second half applies those theories to case studies in contemporary musical genres like country, blues and rock.

This split mirrors the division most readers assume between poetry and song. But the split, like the poem/song division itself, comes to feel almost arbitrary, as the essays in the second half contain much theorizing, as well, and the essays in the first half also rely on case studies.

This blurring of boundaries is a smart move on the part of the anthology’s editor, Knoxville poet and Chapter 16 contributing writer Charlotte Pence: The form of the book, just like the form of any good poem or song, arises from its own argument. For Pence, who has taught poetry to fledgling songwriters at Belmont University in Nashville, the real point is that what separates poem from song is less than what unites them.

Which is not to say that Pence or her essayists ignore the obvious. A line of poetry transmits its own music, via the line’s metrical construction and arrangement of consonants and vowels. A line of song, however, requires instrumentation, which is why even the most memorable song lyrics can seem pedestrian on the page. (Think of Bruce Springsteen’s “Baby, we were born to run” or Louis Armstrong’s “And I think to myself / what a wonderful world.”)

In his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics, Stephen Sondheim notes that “it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music. ... Music straightjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric.”

Still, from the time of Homer to the Renaissance, poetry and song were inexorably linked. Because of this shared history, Pence’s anthology argues, much of the poetic tradition remains embedded in popular song.

In one essay, Pence compares the structure of several hit country songs to that of the traditional sonnet. Citing the present-day grande dame of poetry criticism, Helen Vendler, Pence identifies the crucial element of a Shakespearean sonnet not as its rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but rather its tight rhetorical structure, which features a coda, or twist, at the end, an emotional or psychic change in the speaker.

Using these criteria, she analyzes “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” by Pam Tillis, and “Highway 20 Ride” by the Zac Brown Band. It’s unclear what Vendler would make of the exercise, but Pence concludes that the very act of such analysis “shifts the focus from viewing popular country lyrics as irrelevant, free-formed, and vapid, toward recognizing historical and literary connections. Songs and poetry ... share a history that transforms contemporary writers’ words into art.”

If the argument of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics is that songs and poems share a historical and literary lineage, part of the anthology’s purpose is to help make the study of song lyrics an academic discipline, á la poetry. The book begins with remarks that Tennessee Sen. (and former University of Tennessee President) Lamar Alexander made on the floor of the U.S. Senate after Johnny Cash died.

Referring to an obituary in The New York Times that labeled Cash “the foremost poet of the working poor,” he asked, “Why did we wait until Johnny Cash died to think of him as one of our ‘foremost poets’?” Alexander went on to ask why Vanderbilt and other Tennessee universities have not “done more about the literature that is country music.” He added,Why have we waited for outsiders such as The New York Times and Bob Dylan to tell us that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams are among the foremost poets in the world? Why didn’t some scholar living right among them tell us?”

Pence has not only heeded Alexander’s call, she has upped the ante: Where Alexander is concerned with the poetry in country music, The Poetics of American Song Lyrics claims the whole of popular lyric as worthy of academic study. The genres addressed by the anthology’s nine theoretical essays and 14 case studies include country, blues, rap, hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll, and whatever genre Leonard Cohen falls into. Case studies include Cohen, Sam Cooke, Springsteen, Otis Redding, Dylan, Kris Kristofferson (in an astoundingly astute short essay on “Me and Bobby McGee” by the poet David Daniel, in which he reminds us that “[g]reat art in any form doesn’t answer questions; it enacts them”) and Cash. Beyond those usual suspects, there are also essays on Magnolia Electric Co., Caroline Herring, and Okkervil River, as well as two on R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

But the real stunner in the collection is a tour de force by the poet Kevin Young called “It Don’t Mean a Thing: The Blues Mask of Modernism.” In placing the blues, especially blues lyrics, at the center of the Modernist movement, Young’s essay — with its voice, breadth, cynicism, idealism, pragmatism, weariness, guts, and sheer writerly virtuosity — is itself an enactment of the blues, not only how the blues are “defiant and existential and necessary,” but how they also “reveal and revel in all our holy and humane contradictions.”

Who wouldn’t want to join a class on that topic? There’s little doubt that students would flock, as Pence says they already have at Belmont, to a course on the literary study of popular music lyrics. The Poetics of American Song Lyrics would make excellent reading for such a course. It also just makes excellent reading.

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.