Friday, May 27, 2005

Poetry and Songwriting

I was talking to someone the other day about poems and songs. I wonder why poetry-writing and songwriting are not too closely linked, and if they were ever closely linked at some point in the past. Now you might scream, but of course, they are closely linked! Would it comfort you to know that part of me is screaming as well? But I'm talking about reality, not theory, here.

I'm talking about the separation between a popular, commercialized, relatively centralized, highly profitable music industry whose artistry is perhaps too often compromised for the sake of $$ and a more elitist, less commercialized, more decentralized, unprofitable poetry industry whose artistry is at least not compromised for the sake of $$.

And I'm also talking about the fact that relatively few poets crossover into songwriting or vice versa, which is kind of surprising to me. My initial guess is that writing a poem is different from writing a song nowadays in one key way: poems don't rhyme, songs do. Of course, I'm using overstatement here, but it's not too far from the truth. A more obvious difference is that songs have music, poems don't, not using music in the broad sense here.

Here's my key point: I think that poets and songwriters have a lot to learn from each other. My major problem with many songs nowadays is the lyrics. I think that, for some reason, songs lack originality just on the basic level of word choice. There is a lack of originality in songs. At the same time, songs are much more accessible than poems. People like to listen to music. Ride on any subway, and you'll see people listening to their favorite songs. Unless you're watching me read Tina Chang's Half-Lit Houses, you probably won't catch anyone reading poetry. So the lesson for poetry from songwriting is accessibility.

The exception to everything I've said above is rap. And here's where things relate more specifically to Asian-Americans. I think of rap music as the musical form that is more closely linked with poetry, both commercially and artistically, than any musical form today. Spoken word is arguably a music form in and of itself. And there are many azn poets who have taken advantage of this link and risen to relative popularity beyond traditional, academic poetry circles.


Blogger Geof Huth said...


Of course, there are exceptions. Take a look at the website of my college friend, David Daniel:

Note that you can click to see some poems or some songs--and you can even listen to him singing.

But I don't know many poets who sing well--or even who give good readings!


8:51 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Geof,

Yes, that is definitely a helpful site. It's nice that the links to the poems and the links to the songs are next to each other.

And good point about not knowing many poets who sing well! I wasn't even thinking about singers. Only songwriters. My argument was purposefully overstated, in part, to get good rec's, and apparently, it's achieved its goal. :)

11:24 AM  
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