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Crossover Appeal: Musicians Who Write Poetry

 At Writer’s Relief, we tend to come across a lot of writers who dabble in other forms of artistic expression. This got us thinking—who in the world of popular music has decided to expand their writing to poetry? Spanning across genres, see who has led double lives as songwriters and published poets.

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BONUS: Not familiar with some of these artists? Listen to some of their most poetic songs. (The videos will open up on this page.)

John Lennon – Imagine
Tupac – Dear Mama
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah
Patti Smith – Because The Night
Jim Morrison – People Are Strange
Jill Scott – Golden
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
Joni Mitchell – Help Me
Tom Waits – Watch Her Disappear
Ryan Adams – Oh My Sweet Carolina
Alicia Keys – Fallin’
Billy Corgan – Tonight, Tonight
Jewel – Who Will Save Your Soul?
Michael Stipe – The One I Love

Writer Questions QUESTION: Have you ever dabbled in the world of songwriting? Did you find it to be more challenging than what you normally write?


13 Responses to Crossover Appeal: Musicians Who Write Poetry

  1. Gord Downie of Tragically hip and emily haines of metric Both have published Poetry are musicians and Canadian as well. bill bissett and the chemical brothers poet and dance dj . Thats my contribution.

  2. I would say poetry and song lyrics are somehow interrelated, so it’s not surprising that musicians are able to write poetry. In my opinion, it is harder for poets to write song lyrics if you don’t have any music talent. And that’s me ;)

  3. Thanks, folks, I know you can’t include everyone — the lists would be a mile long! — but I just wanted to make sure that side of the conversation (punk and post-punk) doesn’t get neglected.

    Other worthwhile mentions that escaped memory last time: on her BROKEN ENGLISH (1979) album, Marianne Faithfull chose to end side one with “Why’d Ya Do It,” a scabrous poem by Heathcote Williams (concerning the delicate state of male-female relations — check it out yourself on Youtube, as the language is a bit blue to quote here, I suspect).

    Also, during the 1960s, some of the Liverpool Poets — specifically, Roger McGough, and Mike McGear, better known as Mike McCartney, brother of a certain P. McCartney — teamed up for some musical collaborations, as well.

    The most noteworthy of these efforts became The Scaffold, who actually toured, made several albums and scored three Top 10 UK hits: “Thank U Very Much” (#4, January 1968); “Lily The Pink” (#1, December 1968), based on a traditional song about a female marketer of patent medicines; and “Liverpool Lou” (#7, 1974), on which that certain P. McCartney and Wings also appeared. Good efforts, one and all, well worth your time.

    And lastly, one more example, while my brain’s running so hot: in 1980, The Jam recorded a song (“That’s Entertainment”) which was actually based on a poem by Dave Waller — in this case, singer/guitarist Paul Weller took his friend’s literary efforts and adapted them to the three-minute song format.

    Check it out on Youtube, plenty of versions knocking around there, but here’s a taste of the opening:

    “A police car and a screaming siren”
    “Pneumatic drill and ripped-up concrete”
    “A baby wailing, stray dog howling”
    “The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking”

    To which the chorus answers: “That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment!”

    Tragically, Dave Waller died the following year of a heroin overdose, but this song stands up as his legacy…proof positive, among the many other examples that I’ve cited, of the ongoing crossover between popular music and poetry/spoken word/whatever you wish to call it!

  4. Ralph, thanks for the detailed response! While we cannot possibly include every musician/poet, your post definitely includes some great names and adds insight to the conversation. We’re happy to see our commenters so passionate about their interests and encourage you all to mention your favorite crossover artist if we’ve missed him or her!

  5. I don’t write poetry or lyrics to songs (which IS poetry) but certainly appreciate the writing of others and the effects on our souls. This is a beautiful tribute to the people and words that affect our hearts and souls.

  6. You’ve chosen some of my all-time favorite songs. (I tend to favor poetic songs in general as they strike a more powerful chord in my soul…) Love the slideshow — and thanks for sharing!

  7. Except for Patti Smith, your list omits quite a few folks from the worlds of punk, post-punk and left-field sort of music — for example, Lou Reed (who actually has published poetry); Jim Carroll (ditto, for his book, LIVING AT THE MOVIES); Richard Hell; Henry Rollins (Black Flag and solo); Attila The Stockbroker; Penny Rimbaud (Crass), Mick Farren (The Deviants), Robert Calvert (Hawkwind), who was more a futuristic/sci-fi sort of guy…I could go on forever, but those just a few of the obvious ones that come to mind. Also, you should mention the Minutemen, whose main writers (D. Boon, Mike Watt) wrote songs that mostly ranged from 30 to 60 seconds, and frequently eschewed rhyming altogether.

    It’s also worth mentioning that there’s been a good deal of crossover the other way — Allen Ginsberg teamed up with an obscure punk band, The Gluons, for a 45 that included a rendition of his “Bird Brain,” and he also joined The Clash on their song, “Ghetto Defendant,” on their COMBAT ROCK album. William S.Burroughs recorded spoken word recitations with Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana, for an album that became THE PRIEST THEY CALLED HIM — which is now extremely hard to find.

    As you can tell, my perspective on this is totally different. When I started 20-odd years or so, I worked in spoken word, but I was also recording lyrics from the get-go with a friend of mine — because he did the heavy lifting (e.g., played the guitar), and I could get on with the singing and writing aspect. Later on, though, I wanted more of a say in how I did express myself, so I took up the bass — and that carried me through for 10 years. Then, I moved on to guitar, and (as the saying goes) haven’t looked back. So I’ve freely jumped back and forth across genres and mediums.

    The main challenge of songwriting, I think, is that you usually don’t have much time to tell the story — unless you’re doing some lengthy Dylanesque sort of exploration — so you’ve got to get it done in 16-24 lines, max. Not as easy as it sounds!

    Having worked in both mediums, though, my philosophy is not to draw any fine distinctions between the two art forms — for example, I’ve turned some of my wife’s poems into full-fledged songs, with little more than technical changes (primarily to make individual lines singable). So Kim’s right on that score!

    The interesting part is, once you’ve done these things long enough, you can almost look at somebody’s words and a) tell if the rhythm lends itself to a song, and b) what kind of feel you’re going to get…which gives you an idea of what genre it’s gonna be. At least, that’s been my experience, and my wife’s been happy with the half-dozen (or so) collaborations that we have done.

  8. Thanks WR, for putting together this wonderful slide show. Some of the musicians here are personal favorites, and are because of the fact that their song lyrics are powerful poetry (Mitchell, Smith, Cohen, Dylan, etc). I had the honor of one of my poems being set to choral music for women’s voices– thanks to composer Laura Kramer. Would love to do more work with musicians on that end.
    Hope to see more of cross-overs in upcoming issues, not only with music, but with other artistic media.

  9. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in partnership with New England PEN began giving a Lyrics as Literature award last year. I got to go to last year’s event–the recipient was Paul Simon, who talked about poetry as lyrics with Paul Muldoon and Bill Flanagan. Both Simon and Muldoon performed a couple of songs/poems. I didn’t go this year, but the award recipients were Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen. You can see the wonderful video of Simon, Muldoon, and Flanagan here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/eC88b3E8xk6aL_fPxUdVfQ.aspx

  10. You could include Exene Cervenka of X, The Knitters, Original Sinners.
    As an experiment, I wrote a Knitter-esque song, which my husband’s band recorded. It ended up “rockier” than the Knitters once in his hands, plus he needed me to add one more verse. Be prepared for changes from the musician!

  11. WOW what a neat post! Who would’ve thought some of these people were actually published.

    Hope to see more of these in the future! =)

  12. I’ve written poetry that my readers have said could translate very well to song. The unfortunate part is that I have no idea how to create a melody for it. Oh well. By the way, this is an awesome slideshow…something awesome to start my Monday off with.

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