yet distinct art forms:
Poets in the modern world do not enjoy the elevated social status they did a century or two ago.
Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars of their time. Their poetic skills earned them adulation, celebrity and even the occasional touch of wealth.
These days, poems and poetry are sadly relegated to sparsely attended coffeehouse readings or the obscure pages of small literary magazines.
On the other side of the proverbial coin, there are wonderful opportunities in today's music industry for talented poets - at least those who successfully adapt their writing style to song lyric writing.
Songs are the popular lyrical medium of our time. That’s where status and the bigmoney is for today's poets.
Adapting Poems Into Song Lyrics
There are many examples of poets who have turned their personal poetry into successful song lyrics.
Most everyone’s heard of lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s famous co-writer. One of these talented fellows without the other may have labored in the shadows of obscurity.
Yet, by combining their specialized talents, they were able to write hundreds of great songs, and extrmely popular songs. In the process, they become millionaires!
The lesson is clear: ambitious 21st Century poets who wish to connect with the popular culture and mass audiences will want to learn how to write lyrics.
Which leads to this question: Can poets successfully turn their talents to writing song lyrics?
Answer: For talented poets willing to adapt their writing styles to the craft of lyric writing, the answer is definitely yes!
Song Lyrics v. Poems. The Similarities
To understand the differences between a poem and a well-crafted song lyric, it’s helpful to first understand the similarities.
In general, the same virtues that make a good poem - effective imagery, compelling themes, emotional evocativeness and originality - also make a good song lyric.
Poetry and song lyrics both benefit from well-applied poetic devises, such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia. And both rely on effective use of descriptive imagery.
Song Lyrics v. Poems. The Differences
Despite the many similarities, poetry and lyrics are not the same thing.
Here are some important differences between a poem and a song lyric:
A poem is designed to be read on the page—a lyric is designed to be sung by the human voice and heard with music
Just think about it for a moment. When you’re listening to a song, you don’t have the luxury of going back and re-reading. You can’t stop to dwell on every line.
A poem can be dense in ideas and structurally complex. It is designed to connect with a reader.
A successful lyric needs to connect with a listener. Since music moves the lyric quickly past the listener’s consciousness, the lyric needs to communicate with immediacy, clarity and focused impact.
A song lyric conveys its power through music and sound. Lyrical images and descriptive phrases need to connect with the ear, as well as the brain.
The meaning of a song lyric can be ambiguous, as with many of Bob Dylan’s great songs. Still, the great majority of successful song lyrics succeed because they’re clear and elegantly stated—even to the point of repetition.
After all, refrains and repeated choruses are key structural devices in the art of songwriting, and have been for hundreds of years.
Both poems and lyrics need to capture a listener’s imagination. Yet lyrics need to be easily caught through the ear. A song lyric filled with abstract words and dense, obscure phrases will be simply be unintelligible to most listeners.
A poem stands alone — without music. A lyric must work well with the rhythm and structure of music.
For most creative situations, the easiest method is this: The composer first writes the music. Then the lyricist writes lyrics to exactly fit the existing melody.
Or, as legendary songwriter Paul Simon says, “Write the melodies. Live with them for a while. Then write the words."
On the other hand, experienced collaborators can learn to work in the opposite direction. If the lyricist clearly understands melodic structure, a skilled composer will probably be able to write music to the lyricist’s existing lyrics.
In terms of song structure, lyric writing is a specialized craft. At a minimum, a good lyricist must understand the basics how to create viable verses, climbs, choruses and bridges.
In learning how to write lyrics, the bottom line is this: If you want your lyrics set to music, you must write them so a collaborative music composer can successfully adapt them to music.
A poem can be read silently. A lyric must be sung.
A lyric writer needs to also consider the singers who will perform his work. Certain words and phrases are smooth to sing. Others can be difficult or awkward.
Phrases like “recalcitrant octopuses eat tart grapefruit” are not likely to attract many major league recording artists.
Read your lyrics aloud to see if they are easily “sing-able.” If your word sounds do not flow and sing well, there’s apt to be a problem. If your lyrical phrases prompt awkward stops and stumbles, there’s definitely a problem.
Get into the habit of vocalizing your lyrical lines. You’ll begin to hear the difference.
Poetry can be of almost any length. Lyrics must be concise.
A poem can go on for pages, using concealed images that reveal themselves only after careful re-reading.
In a song lyric, the music moves quickly and every word counts. The best lyric writers use as few words as possible to set a scene and evoke a feeling. Few songs that gain radio play these days are longer than three or four minutes.
Learn to express yourself clearly. Use concise, effective language.
Song Lyrics & Free Verse Poetry
While perfectly appropriate as poetry, free verse (no strict form, rhymes or meter) is rarely set to music with good results.
It can be done, of course, and inovative songwriters like Laurie Anderson have built impressive careers by doing so.
Still, 98 percent of all successful lyrics conform to popular song structures. They offer clear rhyming schemes. They also include clearly delineated verses, choruses, refrains, hooks and/or bridges.
Learn Your Craft!
To learn how to write lyrics, you'll need to learn the craft and educate yourself on basic songwriting structure.
Try This Exercise: Analyze several of your favorite songs. Take the time to notice their specific structures.
When you can clearly discern their individual structures, decide which structures you prefer. Try to figure out which aspects of the various songs most appeal to your particular style and taste.
Then try writing your own song modeled after a song you admire.
As you begin to hear songs with analytical ears, start reading some good books on the subject of lyric writing.
After all, dentists don't become good dentists without a lot of study. Plumbers don't become good plumbers without considerable knowledge and experience. So why should it be any different for lyricists and songwriters?
Note: If your goal is to learn how to write lyrics, there are many great books on the subject of Lyric Writing. Some of the best publications can be found here: Great Books For Songwriters.
SongLyricist.com also recommends Grammy-nominated songwriter Pamela Phillips-Oland’s "The Art of Writing Great Lyrics” and Pat Pattison's "Writing Better Lyrics.” (These books are listed in the column to the right.)
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