National Poetry Month – The Poetry of Song Lyrics (Redux)


April is National Poetry Month. In the past, I have turned the spotlight on some song lyricists, because I’ve always thought that some of the best poets were lyricists. They can pack so much meaning and beauty into simple and clever rhymes. Obviously adding a tuneful melody helps, but there are plenty of songs that lack “poetic” lyrics. We tend to remember best, however, the work of such tunesmiths as Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, as well as more recent writers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, because the substance of what they write resonates with us and forms the background music of our lives.

George and Ira Gershwin, making music for the ages

George and Ira Gershwin, making music for the ages

This year I’d like to take a closer look at a few other lyricists, starting with Billy Joel. He shows a great ability to evoke entire eras with his lyrics, such as Allentown:


Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow

And we’re living here in Allentown
But the restlessness was handed down
And it’s getting very hard to stay
Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown…..”

And of course, who else has limned the Vietnam years so succinctly?….

Goodnight Saigon

We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives
We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses . . .

We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might
We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write . . .”

(The official video includes a number of poignant photos from Vietnam.)

One mustn’t doubt Joel is also making a political statement. And how much more effective are his poetic metaphors than, say, the antiwar song “Eve of Destruction” which has good music but includes lines like “Yeah my blood’s so mad feels like coagulating, I’m sitting here just contemplatin’…” (Well, it rhymes, at any rate.)

Joel is good at depicting love too, but even better at exposing the hurdles love must overcome:

A Matter of Trust

Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start . . .

I’m sure you’re aware love
We’ve both had our share of
Believing too long
When the whole situation was wrong

Some love is just a lie of the soul
A constant battle for the ultimate state of control . . .

Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start
But that can’t happen to us
Because it’s always been a matter of trust. . .”

Billy Joel performing this last song also happens to be one of my favorite music videos (I especially love the woman who appears at 1:40):

Billy Joel’s lyrics are very explicit and easy to understand. Some poetry is like that too, whereas other poetry establishes a feeling more through innuendo or tone… Compare, for example, these two excerpts from songs about summertime. Notice how each one describes a similar setting but very different moods. Yet they are still fairly forthright, and you can picture a story from the lines.

Summertime by George and Ira Gershwin

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry . . .”


Black Velvet sung by Alannah Myles

Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell
Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high
Mama’s dancin’ with baby on her shoulder
The sun is settin’ like molasses in the sky
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything
Always wanting more, he’d leave you longing for

Black velvet and that little boy’s smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that’ll bring ya to your knees
Black velvet if you please . . .”

Finally, I’d like to highlight some lyrics that don’t necessarily make sense if you parse the words, and yet, you still know exactly what is being expressed:

I’ll Melt With You sung by Modern English

Moving forward using all my breath
Making love to you was never second best
I saw the world thrashing all around your face
Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace

I’ll stop the world and melt with you
You’ve seen the difference and it’s getting better all the time
There’s nothing you and I won’t do
I’ll stop the world and melt with you
 . . .”

It’s a great song, but what does it mean? I couldn’t really say, yet in spite of the abstruse language used, somehow, to me at any rate, the essence of the feeling of the soaring optimism and idealism of a first great love is conveyed. To me, that ability to encapsulate or inspire a world of emotion in a few succinct phrases, even if you can’t exactly identify how it happens, is what the designation of “poetry” is all about. Like paintings and prose, poems ask us to add our own perceptions to what may be suggested, so that together – the artist and the observer, create something greater than its parts.

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6 Responses to National Poetry Month – The Poetry of Song Lyrics (Redux)

  1. Julia says:

    I love your perspective on things. I agree that song lyrics are poetry. I esp. appreciated your post recently on Gwendolyn Brooks.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I was never a huge Billy Joel fan so I never paid attention to the lyrics of Goodnight Saigon. I just watched the video and really listened and it made me cry.

    Happy Easter to you and Jim!

  3. parrish lantern says:

    Hi I think that there are certain writers who are poets who use the medium of song to get out their message & then there are certain writers who use performance John Cooper Clarke does both.

    Beasley Street.
    Far from crazy pavements –
    The taste of silver spoons
    A clinical arrangement
    On a dirty afternoon
    Where the fecal germs of Mr Freud
    Are rendered obsolete
    The legal term is null and void
    In the case of Beasley Street
    In the cheap seats where murder breeds
    Somebody is out of breath
    Sleep is a luxury they don’t need
    – a sneak preview of death
    Belladonna is your flower
    Manslaughter your meat
    Spend a year in a couple of hours
    On the edge of Beasley Street
    Where the action isn’t
    That’s where it is
    State your position
    Vacancies exist
    In an X-certificate exercise
    Ex-servicemen excrete
    Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies
    In a box on Beasley Street
    From the boarding houses and the bedsits
    Full of accidents and fleas
    Somebody gets it
    Where the missing persons freeze
    Wearing dead men’s overcoats
    You can’t see their feet
    A riff joint shuts – opens up
    Right down on Beasley Street
    Cars collide, colours clash
    Disaster movie stuff
    For a man with a Fu Manchu moustache
    Revenge is not enough
    There’s a dead canary on a swivel seat
    There’s a rainbow in the road
    Meanwhile on Beasley Street
    Silence is the code
    Hot beneath the collar
    An inspector calls
    Where the perishing stink of squalor
    Impregnates the walls
    The rats have all got rickets
    They spit through broken teeth
    The name of the game is not cricket
    Caught out on Beasley Street
    The hipster and his hired hat
    Drive a borrowed car
    Yellow socks and a pink cravat
    Nothing La-di-dah
    OAP, mother to be
    Watch the three-piece suite
    When shit-stoppered drains
    And crocodile skis
    Are seen on Beasley Street
    The kingdom of the blind
    A one-eyed man is king
    Beauty problems are redefined
    The doorbells do not ring
    A lightbulb bursts like a blister
    The only form of heat
    Here a fellow sells his sister
    Down the river on Beasley Street
    The boys are on the wagon
    The girls are on the shelf
    Their common problem is
    That they’re not someone else
    The dirt blows out
    The dust blows in
    You can’t keep it neat
    It’s a fully furnished dustbin,
    Sixteen Beasley Street
    Vince the ageing savage
    Betrays no kind of life
    But the smell of yesterday’s cabbage
    And the ghost of last year’s wife
    Through a constant haze
    Of deodorant sprays
    He says retreat
    Alsations dog the dirty days
    Down the middle of Beasley Street
    People turn to poison
    Quick as lager turns to piss
    Sweethearts are physically sick
    Every time they kiss.
    It’s a sociologist’s paradise
    Each day repeats
    On easy, cheesy, greasy, queasy
    Beastly Beasley Street
    Eyes dead as vicious fish
    Look around for laughs
    If I could have just one wish
    I would be a photograph
    On a permanent Monday morning
    Get lost or fall asleep
    When the yellow cats are yawning
    Around the back of Beasley

  4. sagustocox says:

    I adore these posts about lyrics/poetics. You’ve always highlighted some great songs.

  5. I have always thought Black Velvet was not only a good song, but also had great lyrics that really evoke a sense of setting. Good post!

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