Is Songwriting the Poetry of the Masses in Modern Times?


“No,” says Elvis Costello. “Poetry is the poetry of the masses.”

Songwriters are often praised with the backhanded comment that their lyrics are so great it means they are not mere songwriters, but poets. As if being a songwriter now, in the 21st century, is a lesser calling, creating an art which is popular but not as important as poetry. 

That idea belongs to the past, though it is still prevalent. Often the intention of the compliment is not to denigrate songwriting and the power of song, but to distinguish a certain kind of poetic song. Certain brilliant songwriters, such as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell frequently have this poet badge awarded to them by writers. Yet while it is true that all employ poetic language in their songs, it’s their greatness at songwriting, not poetry, for which they are known and loved. 

Time was when poetry was an art embraced by the masses. Romantic poetry, for example, written in rhyme and meter, was a popular art, not one intended for the elite. Yet in modern times, as most poetry has abandoned the traditions of meter and rhyme for free verse, it is song that perpetuates these ancient ways of speaking to the heart and soul of humans. There is a power and grace in the rhythmic unfolding of a narrative in rhythm, rhyme and meter that satisfies the human love of symmetry. It bolsters our hopeful hearts, giving us a reason to believe that even in the most dire, nonsensical times, that one of us could transform the chaos into something beautiful and compelling. If that can happen, it means nothing is impossible. Anything we imagine, as John Lennon explained long ago in a song of the ages, is possible. Even a world beyond war.

Here in the 2020s, which is getting off to an especially rocky start, the only place to connect with that real-time energy of rhythmic, rhymed expression is song. The song, at this moment in time, is a far more pervasive and fundamental aspect of human life than poetry. Even with the profound changes in technology which have forever shifted how we attain, collect and hear music, nothing has replaced the song itself. Songs matter as much in our lives as ever, and remain attached to almost every human endeavor,  to celebrate joy and to ease sorrow at momentous times, and also ease us through the hectic or empty times, as in elevators or supermarkets. 

To Patti Smith, who wrote poetry before she wrote songs, and for years has done both, the song is a different creature than a poem, and endowed by its creator with a different mission.

“Poetry is a very solitary process,” she said, “and when I’m writing poetry, unless it’s an oral poem, I’m not really thinking of it in terms of communicating it to anyone; I’m just writing my poetry and sometimes it’s obscure or complicated.

“One does not write poetry for the masses, or with thoughts of who’s reading it. Poetry is a very self-involved lofty pursuit. Whereas songs are for the people. When I write a song I imagine performing it; imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication; it’s for the people.”

“We always write a certain amount of poetry for the masses,” Patti said. “When Allen Ginsberg wrote ‘Howl,’ he didn’t write it for himself; he wrote it to speak out, to make a move, to wake people up. I think rock & roll as our cultural voice took that energy and made it even more accessible.”  

Elvis Costello, a songwriter exclusively, rejected the premise of songwriting having surpassed poetry as the poetry for the masses.

Poetry,” he said, “is the poetry of the masses. They’re  quite different.” He did allow that it can seem patronizing when someone says, `Well, you are good – for a songwriter.’ But the way in which words work in songs is unique and not the same as poetry.”

“ I personally resisted having my lyrics printed on the sleeve,” he said, “because I was quite earnest I suppose, early on, that I wanted the words to be heard as a part of the whole picture. But then people really asked for the words to be written down, so I accepted it then as it becomes a different thing.”

But haven’t songs surpassed poems as the only realm of rhymed and metered verse in modern times?

“No, I can’t agree with that,” Elvis said. “It depends on what kind of song you’re talking about There are some pretty dreadful songs out there that make a poor case for the art of songwriting. And there are perhaps a greater number of rhymed verses being declaimed on hip-hop records for a much larger audience. So does the ubiquity of it make it inherently superior? Well, in the case of some records, yes. Some of those have a level of dexterity and daring that some songs just don’t even approach.”

Van Morrison said Bob Dylan was the greatest living poet of our time. When asked about this in our 1992 interview, Dylan said that he mostly did not feel qualified to be  a poet. Yet the poetry of his answer, with its vast Whitmanesque span of man and time, seems to contradicts his assurance.

“Sometimes,” Dylan said. “It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication. Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau. Poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and usually they know why they’re poets.”

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
I thought you’d never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue

From “Tangled Up In Blue”
By Bob Dylan

Because songs are built to be sung, they are designed with a direct connection to both the heart and the mind. We perceive them in a way separate from other perceptions. Scientists studing the neuroscience of the brain have discovered that songs, unlike spoken or written language, are perceived by all parts of the brain at once, unlike any other communication. They evoke our emotions in a way words alone cannot.  

It is hopeful for humanity to recognize the limitless human ability to make sense of the chaos, and recognize the eternal beauty in the ceaseless rush of life. To create music – a melody – which is referred to in biblical texts as “joyful noise” is one way of adding the warmth to an often cold, crass realm. And any evidence of actualy human harmony – two people singing different parts together that blend in real concord- is proof that humans can transcend the everyday dissonance. In these worrisome times of fear and division, there are few forces as powerful in unifying people as the power of song. Whether it is considered to be a high art on the level of poetry or not, a song is fundamentally distinct from a poem, which is composed of one element only, language. A song is a being of two elements, and as such is not limited to a printed page; a song exists in a realm of the soul, impervious to time, everywhere at once, forever boundless.

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove she will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

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