Part of the difficulty in considering song lyrics as poetry is the crucial omission of the role the music plays. Poetry is meant to contain its own music; even the most imagistic, syntactically concentrated and ideationally evocative song lyrics find their true measure in the music of the song, which offers connectors the lyrics will not contain in themselves, as the words of a poem will. I recall how, in a high school poetry class, I offered Dylan’s “It’s All Right, Ma” for reading. Our teacher was duly impressed by the bountiful rhymes, but sung, the many rhymes were either lyrically emphatic or deemphasized by phrasing. Read as poetry, the rhymes were a club over the head.
Kings of Convenience are an extraordinary Norwegian duo who over the past ten years have released three original recordings of songs that usually are either compacted short stories or quiet meditations on an idea. Musically, they tend toward the melancholic, but with intricate and inventive guitar parts and delicate harmonies and arrangements that bear repeated listening and always delightful discovery. Their lyrics, written in English, are sung with an astonishing absence of accent, with only perhaps the strikingly clear and precise elocution suggesting something other than native speech.
“My Ship Isn’t Pretty,” from their most recent release, Declaration of Dependence, offers an excellent example of lyrics – always rich with meaning and skillful verbal contact, often clever, though not here – that seem like fine poetry, but that extracted from the song, then compared to their affect within the musical environment, are almost, but not naturally so. That is neither here nor there in the end. The lyric, like the songs in general, is a gem rich with facets, in this case somberly concerning the fragile, imperfect nature of human communication. Read, and listen below.
“My Ship Isn’t Pretty”
Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe,
The telegraph gave us hope.
Before was the silence and the panic it brought.
The sky was the blankest sheet.
We drew lines upon it
so our thoughts could meet.
Through cables black and cold
we carried our intentions to bridge
and bring home.
Would it all be so clear
if the lines were erased
and the silence restored?
Boys of today write lines on walls
in the streets at night
in suburbs of cities with no name.
Is this destruction or just quiet protest
The cargo lies in our laps.
The weight is so heavy
and this is all we know.
Our message will need a ship
to travel across oceans
that can’t otherwise be crossed.
It undulates on the waves
and cautions the water so we can be safe
It undulates on the waves
then cautions the water so we can be safe.
- Singing The Phrases Of Poetry Sung (plastic.com)
- Imagery in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen (brighthub.com)
- Teaching Walt Whitman: Summary and Lesson Ideas for Walt Whitman Poems (brighthub.com)
1 thought on “Eating Poetry (XXVII) – “My Ship Isn’t Pretty””
I love that you’re writing about lyrics as poetry and am very much looking forward to reading your work on the topic. Springsteen is arguably as much a poet as a songwriter. His images got me long before his music did, and long, long before his singing. I’m not much of a musician or singer, but I started out writing songs and long to do more of that. Sometimes I take my song lyrics and rewrite them as poems. I agree with you: It’s rare when a song will stand, as is, without the music, as a poem. But I do have some in my collection. Willie Nelson’s songs? I don’t think they work that way. It’s a paradox, because they’re beautifully sparse, the way good poetry should be–but they just don’t work without the music. Here are a few others that do: James Taylor’s do. Billy Joel’s? Yes, I think so. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s? Mostly yes. This is a great topic. Thanks for raising it. Peace and continued good,