Lyrics as Poetry

April 14, 2014 by KWills

The letter LLyrics. Surely they don’t count as poetry? “Oh baby, yeah yeah” is hardly “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, or “She walks in beauty, like the night”. How can song lyrics be poetry?

Some lyrics obviously don’t work well without the music to hold them together, but there are many lyrics that, when taken in isolation, reveal complex and beautiful poetry. They don’t have to be “deep” lyrics, either. One of my favourites is “New York, New York”. Verse one seems pretty unstructured:

Start spreading the news,
I’m leaving today,
I want to be a part of it,
New York, New York,

No rhyme, different line lengths, no obvious meter. But when we add verse two, we see that the rhyme and line lengths match across the verses, not within them:

These vagabond shoes,
Are longing to stray
Right to the very heart of it
New York, New York

Then the structure changes. This is very common in lyrics, but it happens in poetry, too. The Italian sonnet, for one, changes pace and rhyme-scheme at the halfway mark.

I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps,
And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap.

This couplet matches beats, not syllables, in the same way as Anglo-Saxon poetry. Now back to the third verse, which matches the rhyme and rhythm of the first two, and into the ending:

These little town blues,
Are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it
In old New York

If I can make it there,
I’ll make it anywhere,
It’s up to you,
New York, New York

That ending reflects the bridge, with the rhymes close together. In the case of “you/New” the rhymes are next to each other, making a nice contrast to the wide spacing of the rhymes across the verses, and pulling the lyric to a close; similar to the effect of the closing couplet in an English sonnet.

There is also a poetic form known as the Lyric Ballad, which is used so commonly in songs that you’ve probably heard it all your life without realising it. The form is four lines, rhymed xaxa (where x doesn’t have to rhyme, although it sometimes may). The line length alternates between four and three beats to a line. Like this:

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man,
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
Please don’t take him just because you can,

Or this:

When I was bound apprentice
In famous Lincolnshire
‘Twas well I served my master
For nigh on seven year

The swing of the steady “four/three” beat means that the song is easy to join in with, and fits well into the music. The “missing” fourth beat of every other line is filled in by the listener – and by the music. It swings along comfortably, and could keep going almost forever. (And, in the case of some folk songs, seems to do exactly that.)

A few weeks ago, I took part in FAWM (February Album Writing Month) as I have done for a few years now. Today’s poem is therefore a bit of a cheat, as I’m going to recycle something I wrote earlier. It’s a lyric ballad with three verses, with a slight variation in the chorus.


My eyes are drawn to you across the room
And soon I will be standing by your side
My heart will be yours all too soon
Though I know how this goes, I have to try

And around I go again
Falling as surely as the rain
You’d think I would learn from the pain
But here I go round again

As the water in the river is carried to the sea
And just as surely rises to the clouds
The rain will come falling, guaranteed
It’s a cycle that keeps going round

And around I go again
Falling as surely as the rain
You’d think I would learn from the pain
But here I go round again

But there are many paths that a raindrop can take
On its well-worn journey back to the sky
And there are decisions I could make
To save me from having to cry

So around I go again
Falling as surely as the rain
But maybe I’ve learned from the pain
As I go round again.


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