A Quest to Find Poetry in Music

In an age when music is dominated by pop princesses and fame-driven rappers, I often find myself diving deeply into my musical archives to rediscover songs that are refreshingly complicated, meaningful, and full of poetry.

I was first introduced to poetry through the lyrical ingenuity of some of my favorite musical artists. I have always believed that poetry can be found in the lyrics of songs, and as a fledgling songwriter, DJ and huge consumer of music of all kinds, I am constantly looking for poetry in musical lyrics. I love to read song lyrics and think about the intended meaning. For me, this was my gateway to understanding and appreciating traditional poetry. So while I really appreciate the works of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, my favorite poetry is usually set to music. Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison are examples of songwriters who first started their careers as actual poets. Bob Dylan is perhaps the best example of this mash-up of poetry and lyricism. In fact, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.

Below, I compiled a list of my three all-time favorite lyrical songs and included my favorite excerpts that prove poetry and good music are inextricably linked.

Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen        

“I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert

You’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair

She said that you gave it to her

That night that you planned to go clear

Did you ever go clear?”

Leonard Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat is a tragic, evocative love letter set to music that tells the story of a complicated love triangle. The exact meaning behind the lyrics is so ambiguous that I hang on every single word trying to decipher Cohen’s intended meaning. It’s this purposeful ambiguity and complexity that grab me. I hear it differently every single time it’s played.

The End by The Doors

This is the end, beautiful friend

This is the end, my only friend

The end of our elaborate plans

The end of ev’rything that stands

The end”

        Every time I hear The End by the Doors, and written by Jim Morrison, the lyrics stop me in my tracks. Morrison’s mystical lyricism is simultaneously confounding and haunting, as he muses about the meaning of his life experiences, and if, on the brink of death, he can make sense of his own existence. Morrison’s lyrics also ponder the inevitability of death in the literal sense, but he also suggests that losing touch with his creative process would be a certain kind of death.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan

“Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’

For the loser now will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’”

        Bob Dylan redefined the boundaries of literature after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Dylan was the first musician to win the award. In this brief excerpt from one of his most famous songs, Dylan beckons writers and critics to “prophesize” with their pens, to anticipate and embrace change. “For the loser now will be later to win,” he warns. As in all great poetry, there is a timeless quality in Dylan’s meaningful words and phrases. These lyrics transcend the revolutionary era in which they were written and seem to apply to the kinds of challenges we are experiencing today, over 50 years later.