When is a Poem not a Poem?

As a writer, I’m used to being asked the question: where do you get your ideas from? (I sometimes like to answer: “The Devil”, just to see the look on people’s faces.) But as a writer AND a singer/songwriter, you tend to get asked different types of questions. “How can you get up there and sing in front of all those people?” is usually top of the list. This is common even from other writers. “I could never do that,” they tell me, “I’d freeze.” This from people who would happily get up in front of a room full of people and read their – sometimes painfully personal – stories. I find it very interesting that creative people, i.e. writers, who confound other people’s expectations with their ability to create something are themselves in turn often confounded by a musician’s ability to create something. So, what is the difference between being a novel writer and a songwriter? Or is there one?

To be sure, there are differences. But there are also similarities. For me, I actually began writing stories. I grew up on the British comics of the 1970s, such as, 2000AD and Battle, and I started out as a kid writing and drawing my own comics, eventually graduating onto short stories. Then in my teens I discovered the guitar and began writing songs.

And, to start off with, there are the obvious differences between the two. For me, one of the main differences is that writing music and writing prose require a different headspace. I can’t write a chapter of a book and then turn around and pick up a guitar and start writing a song. When I’m writing a story, I need to concentrate on that and vice versa. Another difference is, you don’t usually sit down and plan out a whole song in advance, using flow-charts and character biographies. But, then again, a lot of novel writers don’t do that either. Many simply sit down with an idea or a character and start writing, letting the story take them where it will. This is very similar to a songwriter.

So, while there are differences, there are similarities as well, which I don’t think my writer friends realise. How many writers have started a story with an image or a phrase or an idea generated by something they saw on the TV or the news? That’s the same way I write a lot of my songs. I will often have an image or a thought or a phrase which will start me off and I will go from there. Writers also often think that song lyrics have to be rhyming couplets. As a songwriter, my lyrics tend to steer clear of the kind of rhyming schemes of someone like Coldplay (sorry Coldplay fans); that is, rhyming of the moon-June-swoon variety. Sometimes my lyrics don’t even rhyme. They are more what could be described as blank verse.

So, is songwriting more like writing poetry then? Well, yes and no. There are those – mostly poets – who take great umbrage with the idea that a mere pop song could be considered poetry. And while this may be the case with a song like Jedward’s ‘Lipstick’, what about the staggering oeuvre of someone like Bob Dylan? And what about someone like Leonard Cohen, who is both a songwriter and a poet? This begs the question: when does a poem stop being a poem and become a song? The answer: when you start to sing it.

Another interesting correlation between writing and music is the immediacy of both in the current climate. There was a time where you recorded your song or wrote your book and had to wait another year before people got to hear it or read it. Now, with the advent of social networking, that’s all changed. You can now upload your song or publish your piece of writing online and get immediate feedback from other people. In light of this, I hope to use this blog to examine more closely the relationship between writing and music, and perhaps try to find new ways of combining the two.

This article was first published on www.writing.ie

8 thoughts on “When is a Poem not a Poem?

  1. Derek, you’ve explained the differences & similarities perfectly. But personally, I see no difference in artistry of any form. We’re all expressing what’s in our hearts & minds.

    Thanks, Derek.
    Liz X @ejacksonauthor

  2. I love the way you have dissected the two art forms and shown their similarities and differences – and there are many I hadn’t considered. I have the same reaction when trying to switch from poetry to novel edits – I find it impossible. I can switch between poetry and short stories, but the longer piece of work needs more headspace. I think why writers are so terrified of the prformance thing is because they don’t need to read the whole novel – they can leave people to read it in the space of their own home and make their own judgements. When you’re singing, you’re being judged on the whole piece immediately. Also, it’s the thought of singing. I must admit – I’m one of those that would be terrified at the thought. I can’t sing at all – or at least, not well. Songwriting is one art form, but being able to sing as well – that’s another talent in itself. Being able to write novels too? That’s just showing off! 🙂 Seriously though – thanks for yet another thought-provoking piece.

  3. Great post Derek. You brought up some interesting points. Being a lover of writing and music, I’ve never really mixed the 2 except on the level that sometimes one inspires the other and also the creativity involved.

  4. Excellent post, Derek. Pretty much sums it up. I’ve often wondered what a songwriter would make of my poems – which are mostly blank verse.

    Writing novels as well as poetry I used to find that I could switch from one to the other quite comfortably but I am now finding that I think more as a novelist. Maybe I’m getting too old and my wee brain cannae cope with it all.

  5. I’m lost for words. Not really. But I am taken a back. It never seizes to amaze me just what goes on inside a writer’s head. There’s a whole lot of something in all of ours. That’s good to blog about and certaintly good to read. Enjoyed your post~

  6. Hi, I liked the article and I wondered if people could post up their own works here?

    As a guitarist I have never really tried to write lyrics to any of my music, even though I write fiction and poetry. But certainly interesting to think about whether poetry could be a source for creating a peice of music. It’s funny that now I am older I read lyrics to songs I really like and some of the words are so clever and sometimes they do rhyme – it’s like this song I was learning today for example:

    On the first part of the journey
    I was looking at all the life
    There were plants and birds and rocks and things
    There was sand and hills and rings
    The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
    And the sky with no clouds
    The heat was hot and the ground was dry
    But the air was full of sound

    I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
    It felt good to be out of the rain
    In the desert you can remember your name
    ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
    La, la …


  7. My favorite line: “When does a poem stop being a poem and become a song? The answer: when you start to sing it.”

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