I couldn’t get the hang of poetry.

The title of this blog is a quote from a song by Arctic Monkeys called Suck It And See. The line goes: “I poured my aching heart into a pop song, I couldn’t get the hang of poetry”. This rather explicit concession from Alex Turner that, despite how countless journalists care to describe him, he is not a poet has sparked a huge internal debate for me. It’s common that we describe our favourite lyricists as poets but is this really the case? I look to some of the influences on my own music, that is purposely very lyrical, and I see people like Alex Turner, John Lennon and the fantastic wordsmith that is Morrisey and I think that the words they are singing are ‘sheer poetry’. I’ve been seriously thinking though whether this is genuinely the case, is there a key difference between a poet and a lyricist or are they one in the same? Perhaps they are no more than different breeds of the same species, the Daschund and the Lhasa Apso of the literary world.

I had a brief discussion about this with a good friend of mine, Dave Hayes, a few weeks ago. Dave is a graphic designer (and a very good one at that) and I could see he was playing about on one of his programmes with a great number of words. When I asked him what he was doing it turned out that he was combining two great passions and skills of his. He was taking poetry he had written and giving it form and shape, using his graphic design skills in order to make the poem look like it reads. A very clever idea I believe. This, inevitably, sparked a discussion about poetry and as Dave read me a couple of his poems I was amazed by the complexity and the adeptness of his writing. At the time I had with me my black notebook, I carry this around with me and I use it to jot down various thoughts I have about the world or things in my day to day life. Primarily however it is my notebook that I use to write my lyrics in. I take great pleasure in songwriting and I see it as a way for me to express myself and play with language in a way that is more liberating and less rigid that, say, writing a blog post. Anyway, that’s besides the point. Basically what happened is, after reading me some of his poetry, I read Dave some of my lyrics that I’d been working on at the time. It was then it suddenly hit me the incredible difference between a poem and a set of lyrics. The way Dave’s poems flowed serenely off the page as though they were a running down a well-worn foot path was in stark comparison to the way my lyrics seemed stubborn and staggered when read aloud. This really got me thinking about lyrics and poems and how they are actually very different things.

As an ex-literature student I had a love/hate relationship with poetry. I absolutely loved reading and studying poems, really getting my teeth into the ideas and the meanings they were trying to convey. However, I absolutely hated writing about them. I found it extremely difficult to transfer something so beautiful and artistic into a set of three paragraphs about form, structure and language. It never really sat right with me. I think this is because the purpose of  a poem is not to facilitate the search for five assessment objectives, instead it is there to take the reader on a journey using imagery and language in an attempt to convey some truth or enlightenment that the poet believes is worth writing about. Poems are trying to show something, to share a certain aspect of life with the world; poems, therefore, are written to be read whereas lyrics are written to be heard. Perhaps that is why lyrics sound so odd and uncomfortable when read aloud. A lyric is part of a huge mix of sounds and noises that come together to create a song, so surely they must all be considered as a complete organism. Reading a bare lyric without the flesh and bones of the melody or the music is like listening to only the bassline of a song without anything else surrounding it. They are not made to be listened to in such a way and so it’s wrong to compare lyrics to poetry as though they were the same medium. A poem is a solitary and often daring creature, whereas lyrics are pack animals, never straying far from the comfortable and the well known with its friends, the other elements of the song.

So this could mean that lyrics are a form of poetry, but poetry set to music. In the film Nowhere Boy a young Paul McCartney says to his soon to be songwriting soulmate, John Lennon, something along the lines of “a song is just a poem, put to music”. If this is true, does that make every songwriter a poet? I don’t think so. The poet Simon Armitage once wrote this in an article for the Guardian:

“Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.”

So it would seem that poets themselves are not happy with this ongoing comparison between the poet and the songwriter and, as pretentious as the quote may seem, he has a point. Can you really imagine the greats such as Milton or Keats getting away with some of the abysmal lyrics that are perpetually thrust in our direction every time we put the radio on? It seems wrong to compare a songwriter to a poet in this sense because the poem often comes after a long time striving for the right word, image, rhyme scheme or structure. In comparison the song is bound by structure and certain necessities that make a song a song.

The argument then seems to have come to a conclusion. Poetry and lyrics are two completely separate entities. They take on different forms and serve different purposes and so should never really be considered in the same way. Problems arise though when we then have to define what is a poem and what are just lyrics. If all words set to music are lyrics then we would have to admit that people like Gil Scott Heron or, one of my favourite artists, Scroobius Pip are not poets. They are essentially spoken word artists but both perform, or performed, their writing set to a beat or to some music. It’s not rapping and it’s not singing but it’s also not as though the music and the words are separate. They are both conscious of each other and work with one another to create mood, atmosphere and effect. Do they become less than poems or sub-poetry because they are also songs? To do that seems just ridiculous.

I think, as with most things of this nature, it’s so open to interpretation and subjectivity that no ultimate conclusion can ever be reached. People will forever consider artists like Bob Dylan, Ian Curtis or Biggie Smalls to be poets in the same way that many poets will argue that they are not poets.The problem with this is defining things. It’s as difficult to define ‘poetry’ as it is to define ‘art’ or ‘music’ and so there will always be debate. Personally I think I side with Simon Armitage in the sense that songs are not poems, but that doesn’t mean songwriters are not poets. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a poet and until I write a poem I never will.


As a little aside I’d like to share with you one of the songs that really causes a struggle on this subject for me. It’s the absolutely fantastic ‘The Escapist’ by The Streets. Enjoy!


Thanks for reading. If you’ve got an opinion on this matter, or you’d just like to leave a comment, then please feel free to use the comment section below. I’m eager to hear what you all think. If you enjoyed this blog then please tweet it to your followers or post in on Facebook. Thanks again!


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  • Dates, all three hundred and sixty five of them.

    September 2011
    M T W T F S S
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