National Poetry Month: The Poetry of Song Lyrics

April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate this year, I am profiling the poetry of music.

april-national-poetry-month-monet-claude-water-lillies

Some of the best expressions of summer love come from song lyrics. And there are so many that say it so well! I always think of song lyrics in terms of poetry. To me, with their use of metaphor, allusion, and rhyme, they are properly considered poems. I have picked some that show different viewpoints of and approaches to the same basic scenario: it’s summer, you’re young, you’re not necessarily in love; but you want to feel free, feel good, and do the things lovers do:

Summer lovin’, had me a blast
Summer lovin’, happened so fast
Met a girl crazy for me
Met a boy cute as can be
Summer days drifting away
To, uh oh, those summer nights

The lyrics of Bruce Springsteen offer a significant advance in sophistication from most “summer love” songs. In “Thunder Road,” the male in the speaks directly to the female about the possibilities for the two of them, in an assortment of metaphors, double entendres, and artfully constructed cadences:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling, you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright
Oh, and that’s alright with me

You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now, I ain’t no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

Oh oh, come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road
Oh, Thunder Road, oh, Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey, I know it’s late, we can make it if we run
Oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road
Sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road

Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken
But tonight we’ll be free, all the promises’ll be broken

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines rolling on
But when you get to the porch, they’re gone on the wind
So Mary, climb in
It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win

Springsteen revs up the metaphors in “Born to Run,” a less wistful, and more exuberant, accomplished rendition of his sentiments in “Thunder Road”:

In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected
and steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims
and strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
`Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild
girl I want to know if love is real

Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when
we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
baby we were born to run

In “Night Moves,” Bob Seeger is remembering a similar situation when he was younger. Notice his allusions are less subtle than those of Springsteen, and his overall tone seems less desperate, in spite of a bittersweet tinge of nostalgia and loss:

I was a little too tall
Could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants points hardly reknown
She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sitting way up high
Way up firm and high

Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves in the summertime
In the sweet summertime

We weren’t in love oh no far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young and restless and bored
Living by the sword
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, the alley, the trusty woods
I used her she used me
But neither one cared
We were getting our share

Workin’ on our night moves
Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
Workin’ on out night moves
In the summertime
And oh the wonder
Felt the lightning
And we waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

And about that bittersweet tinge of nostalgia and loss: how is it conveyed? It’s interesting to me to take his lyrics apart, phrase by phrase, and think about the combinations that go into his recipe: “sweet summertime” “we were young and restless and bored” “how far off I sat and wondered” “when you don’t seem to have as much to lose” “with autumn closing in” …..

Finally, we move all the way to the most abstruse expression of the remembrance of a fleeting love from the past, and perhaps the saddest. In Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” even the title is packed with multiple meanings, and can make me cry all on its own. Dylan later explained that he attempted to apply his study of Cubism in art to his music, to create a more multi-dimensional effect. In this I think he succeeded admirably.

Early one mornin the sun was shinin
I was layin in bed
Wondrin if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like
Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bank book wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’on the side of the road
Rain fallin on my shoes
Heading out for the east coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues
Gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam i guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
We’ll meet again some day
On the avenue
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the axe just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin for a while on a fishin boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind
And i just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, Don’t I know your name?
I muttered somethin under my breat
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces
Of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

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 13th 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

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin on
Like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point
Of view
Tangled up in blue

(“Tangled Up in Blue” first appeared on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks in 1975, and was only later released as a single. Rolling Stone ranked it #68 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.)

Happy National Poetry Month!!

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14 Responses to National Poetry Month: The Poetry of Song Lyrics

  1. Sandy says:

    I’ll pass on Seger but I LOVE Springsteen. His older stuff still to this day rocks my world. I remember listening the Born To Run Album on my bed with the window open in the summer, dreaming of who knows what. Boys probably.

  2. Beth F says:

    Phew! I was getting worried until I got near the end. What’s a poetry in music post without Dylan?

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    Of course you’d include Bob Dylan!

  4. sagustocox says:

    Dylan is a consummate poet/songwriter….he’s often thought of as a crossover artist, and I was wondering when you’d get to him in this post! 🙂 I love the lyrics you selected and the topic. It’s always great to see what you pick to talk about for Poetry month and it’s always so informative. Jill, I just love the way that mind of yours works!

  5. Jeanne says:

    I have poor auditory discrimination and always have, so I rarely hear the lyrics to music. While I’ve heard the words to “Night Moves” for most of my life, I don’t think I’d ever seen all of them!

  6. Bryan G. says:

    Springsteen and Dylan: so appropriate that they’re mentioned here in the same post, as Springsteen when he first arrived on the scene was compared to Dylan, I think, with his writing. Both are wonderful poets. Thanks for reminding us all of that.

  7. Stefanie says:

    All my favorite songs also work really well as poetry. Simon and Garfunkel used to be really good at it too.

  8. Rita K says:

    Interesting choices. Springsteen and Dylan are the best!

  9. Songs are one of the most fun kind of poetry out there. Great idea to join the blog tour with this post, thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. Darlene says:

    Love your post Jill! Nice to reminisce on some old music as well. You know I never really thought of music as being poetry but in reading the lyrics I realize it really is. I have the urge to dig out my old Springsteen cd’s again.

  11. JoV says:

    You make me remember my Bruce Springteen years… Thanks!

  12. Geesh, hardly no love for Seger except from me! I love Bob and think he truly has a way with words and telling a story. I loved all three examples that you wrote about and will admit that this is the first real poetry post that I read from beginning to end!!! Loved it!!

  13. bookingmama says:

    The one summer song that popped into my head was Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69!

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    You had me at Danny and Sandy. But the others were nice too 🙂

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