The lines they are a changin' as pop turns into poetry
Dylan vs Keats, Cocker vs Coleridge - Jack O'Sullivan finds poets praising the lyrical virtuosity of the rock star
Saturday 28 March 1998
Yet most poets see themselves as practising a very different art from their rhythmic cousins. They are slightly appalled at attempts to place them in the same league. "When you are writing a poem, you are setting it to music at the same time," explains Don Paterson, winner of this year's TS Eliot prize. "You are trying to speak musically. In contrast, the skill of lyric writing is in leaving space for the music. Most poets are bad at that because they want to fill all the parts."
Michael Donaghy, the American-born poet, is more emphatic. "Robert Lowell said in 1959 of the lesser beat poets that their poetry sounded like an unscored libretto. That's how I feel about reading pop lyrics that pass themselves off as poetry. Bob Dylan is great supported by his band, his guitar and the rasp of his voice, but the effect of reading his lyrics on the page is like getting a ten minute self-indulgent electric guitar solo without the bass and drums. With Keats you get the bass and drums. Everything is there on the page. A great poet puts it all there for you to unlock with your mind's ear."
It's a division that Adrian Mitchell, the performing poet and playwright, cannot accept. He highlights the long history of poet/lyricists not only here but in Europe, notably Jacques Prevert's work for Forties' French cabaret and Brecht's lyric writing for the German theatre.
"I am against the erection of a Berlin Wall between lyrics and poetry. I am interested in what is good and bad, what is empty and what is full of gold."
Yet, regardless of this debate, poets are moved and inspired by pop lyricists. Their obliqueness is particularly valued. "I learn when they approach a problem from an odd, creative angle," says Ruth Padel, who likes singer songwriters, such as Laurie Anderson, Tori Amos, Michelle Shocked and Tracey Chapman. That same word "oblique" crops up again with Paul Farley, the up and coming poet, whose first collection, "The Boy From the Chemist Is Here To See You" has just been published. "An oblique approach appeals to the poet because you have the whole concept of the word carrying great weight and the sound of it meaning more than what the word signifies."
So who are the poets' favourite lyricists? The usual suspects litter their lists: Lennon, McCartney and, of course, Dylan. Jarvis Cocker, full of irony, ranks high.
"'Common People' is a great piece of shit stirring about middle class people slumming it," says Paul Farley, who also rates Alex Chilton from Big Star. And Elvis Costello scores consistently high - "lyrics you can listen to again and again," says Adrian Mitchell, who is currently compiling an anthology for teenagers including works by McCartney and Chuck Berry.
When asked to give his views on the great debate sparked by Chris Smith's comments, Mitchell inevitably came up with a short poem, entitled "The Hamburgerisation of Poetry":
My wife Celia said:
Don't say anything stupid.
Just say: Keats and Bob Dylan - They both died young."
Life & Style blogs
Coachella Festival 2015: from Kendall Jenner to Alexa Chung, stars and festival-goers parade their boho best
What do the emoji on Snapchat mean?
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive - it's where the CIA gets its coffee fix
'Game-changing' new way to fight cancer discovered
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...
£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...
£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...
£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...