Songwriters vs. Poets: A Battle Royale (Or a Long-simmering Grievance Aired to No Good Effect)

Our lives would be so much better if everyone had their own horn sectionPetrarch and his Favorite Axe, after a fresco by Andrea del Castagno.
John Prine is a songwriter I admire a lot. I can’t listen to any of the many covers of “Angel from Montgomery” without getting all wistful and gooey inside.

(Well, any of them except Dave Matthews' version which smothers the song's pristine grace in big steaming gobs of bathos).

There’s a big old goofy man
Niccolò Acciaiuoli Waits for the Band, after the fresco by Andrea del Castagno
Dancing with a big old goofy girl.
Oh baby, it’s a big old goofy world.

That's the chorus of Prine's "Big Old Goofy World." It has a solid, if not very imaginative, meter, a fine, slightly slanted rhyme, and an image with lots of open space to roll around in. It's stalwart writing, but nothing that knocks your socks off or makes you break down and break out the 80 proof. But, when you listen to the song—when that chorus is melded with the melody on a finger-picked six-string you get something a lot heftier. Those simple, near throw-away lines become incredibly poignant--a summa of hard-won wisdom. The depth comes from a blending of word and tune, word and vocal inflection, word and musical arrangement. And that is just fine.  The flow and counterflow of lyric and melody is what popular music is all about.

Cover Art: Chelsea Morning / Joni MitchellA hooky guitar riff and a beat you can dance to will cover for a lot of lazy rhymes, and wrenched meters.
I am not saying the best songwriters are incapable of poetry. I’m saying that comparing poetry to song is wrong. It devalues the very different skills that each artist has at her or his disposal. For one thing, a singer has a lot more room to play with tempo than a poet. Extra syllables can be spat out to fit the beat and not only is it not jarring, it can lend to the evocative and rhetorical power of a passage. A spoken word poet does not have that luxury. An extra syllable or misplaced stress is glaringly apparent to even casual listeners of verse.
All I'm trying to get at here is that calling a songwriter a poet is like calling a Blue-faced Mandrill a Gorilla. At first blush it might appear accurate, but it's not, and chances are one or the other, the baboon or the ape, is going to take offense.

So the next time some Arts & Entertainment tele-journalist calls Springsteen or Dylan a poet, you'll know that the strange sound you're hearing is the gnashing of teeth and the rolling of eyes in the hollowed sockets of people who consider themselves the ones entitled to the name. Look, the guys and gals with the guitars have always gotten the hotties and the money, just give us this one little concession and we'll slink back to our corners and let them have the spotlight.

Below are a few of the usual suspects often called "poets of popular song."Cover Art: Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour [Music by Tom Waits]
The Essential Leonard Cohen (CD)
Kurt Cobain /
Bob Dylan /
Joni Mitchell /
John Lennon /
Early Work, 1970-1979 / Patti Smith
Bruce Springsteen /
The Lyrics of Tom Waits (Electonic Resource) /
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road / Lucinda Williams
Sonny Boy Williamson /
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon /

The above skirts the question of whether popular song has taken the place once held by poetry in the popular consciousness, and perhaps we'll take it up at a later date.

Photo Credit: Petrarch and his Favorite Axe, after a fresco by Andrea del Castagno by Mike Licht,
Photo Credit: Niccolò Acciaiuoli Waits for the Band, after the fresco by Andrea del Castagno by Mike Licht,