Right of Reply: Martin Newell

The Independent's poet replies to Ruth Padel's argument that pop lyrics cannot be poetry

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:34

I CAN'T agree with Ruth Padel's argument that pop lyrics cannot be poetry. The best pop lyrics in fact are poetry - whether Cheltenham Literary Festival has decreed them so or not.

Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, XTC, Jim Morrison, The Smiths and many other artists from the past 40 years have all come up with stuff that works both on page and on stage. It is characteristically modest of Ian Dury to deny that his own lyrics are poetry, but the artist, at least in this case, should be the last person to judge his own work since he has written some of the grittiest and most moving pop poetry of the last 20 years.

Poetry and pop lyrics are not necessarily brother and sister, it is true. They are, however, very close cousins. Dylan is often the first artist to be brought up in the poetry vs pop lyrics debate, but he's a bad example since mostly his lyrics don't communicate well on the page. Far better to apply the argument to some of the aforementioned artists or even to "Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom!", itself a poem from Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti". The only rule to apply to poetry, surely, is that if the reader or listener says it's poetry then that's what it is.

The poetry pundits are far too precious about what does or does not constitute poetry. Having been both a songwriter and a poet I would say that both can creep into each other's beds on occasion. What some poets may look upon as the constriction of writing to a strict tune should be regarded as a cage to be brilliant in, which is good for the discipline of both jobs.

Immortality will be conferred only upon those stanzas and lyrics that etch their way into the public's affections via truth, beauty or humour. Then the poetry vs pop lyrics debate becomes irrelevant.

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