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They're playing our poem

MusicPoetryMusic IndustryPopular Music (genre)

If you want to make Stephen Sondheim mad enough to swat you over the head with a rolled-up musical score, try this:

Call him a poet.

As Sondheim insists in interviews, essays and in the introduction to his book "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)" (2010), he doesn't much like to be anointed with the P-word:

"Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems." To people who claim that song lyrics are synonymous with light verse, he counters, "Light verse is complete unto itself. Lyrics by definition lack something."

And in discussing the words to the song "Something's Coming" — sung by the about-to-be-besotted Tony in "West Side Story" (1957) — Sondheim grouses, "Some of these images may seem 'poetic' in the way I deplore."

His lyrics are not intended to appear on a page, naked and tuneless, he says: "Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung." Thus the publication of his lyrics is "a dubious proposition. … Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort."

Yet as the sales figures for poetry collections prove, for most people, song lyrics are the only poetry to which they habitually attend — without having a gun pressed to their head — and certainly the only poetry for which they willingly fork over money.

Song lyrics are usually the first poems we learn as children, from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." Not exactly Wordsworthian, but chances are, you still remember every word.

Many contemporary songwriters have no problem being called poets — in fact, they actively aspire to the label. Poetry collections by pop musicians include Jewel's "A Night Without Armor" (1998), Jill Scott's "The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours" (2005), Billy Corgan's "Blinking With Fists" (2004) and Jeff Tweedy's "Adult Head" (2004).

Some of these efforts, while a hit with fans, are of questionable literary value. "I miss your touch/ all taciturn," Jewel writes in her poem "I Miss Your Touch," "like the slow migration of birds/ nesting momentarily/ upon my breast/ then lifting/ silver and quick — ."

Bob Dylan, who published a collection of prose poems in "Tarantula" (1971), has been rumored in recent years to be on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Still, Sondheim's conviction that poems and songs are very different entities is surely the majority attitude in contemporary American culture — even though it represents a comparatively recent shift.

Poems and songs weren't always on opposite sides of a chasm. Centuries ago, poems and songs were regarded as the same thing. Scholars of antiquity believe that early poetry was chanted or sung rather than recited, and most people listened to poems in crowds instead of reading the poems by themselves in private.

Epics such as the "Iliad" were considered songs as much as they were poems, and came to be written down only after generations of people had thrilled to the story.

Today's song lyrics, then, are the last remnants of what used to be a thriving popular tradition. The words to songs, says Veronica Horwell, a London-based essayist who has written admiringly of Sondheim's work, are "the last oral poetry common in our lives." The pinnacle of achievement for the English language, the plays of Shakespeare, are filled with songs, she notes. The dialogue and the song lyrics are all part of the same magical, transporting experience.

"I began to read Shakespeare as a primary school child," recalls Horwell. "I read Shakespeare's lyrics and … wished I knew the music for them, as I wanted to sing them. They demanded to be sung.

"If you think about it, the earliest poetry was an attempt to make a formulation of words memorable and therefore repeatable at internal and external command by using the most musical aspects of language."

Today's cultural gatekeepers, however, often are unwilling to concede that poems and song lyrics are the same thing. Like Britain, the United States has a poet laureate — but not a songwriter laureate.

Of the editors for whom she works, Horwell says, "I have never been able to persuade them to consider Sondheim's lyrics, or any other lyrics, as the oral poetry they undoubtedly are."

Poetry and song lyrics are "sister art forms that diverged at a certain point," agrees David Orr, a poet and poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review.

So when did the split happen, and why?

Among the crucial developments in the 20th and 21st centuries has been a sort of upgrade of the word "poet," to imbue it with more dignity and decorum than a simple word like "songwriter" possesses. But it wasn't just a cosmetic change. The aims and methods of poetry changed as well, transforming it from a popular art form that used repetition and common expressions into a more academic exercise that relies on allusive language. Compare the work of an early American poet such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with its regular meter and simple rhyme schemes, to the work of a 20th century poet such as T.S. Eliot with its dense, intricate symbolic structure and its frequent lack of rhyme or meter — and the difference will be clear.

Songwriting, for its part, has kept to its roots: Popular songs still generally comprise verses and choruses, and they're still about self-expression and communication, about emotion.

Indeed, the word "poem" has acquired a veneer of highbrow effeteness, of snooty sophistication that revels in obscurity, while "song" sounds accessible, like a short, sharp, instantly communicative chunk of an exposed soul.

In contemporary life, a poem can seem dandified and remote. But a song lyric is unadorned, ragged and personal. A poem requests that you think; a song lyric asks only that you feel.

Ross W. Duffin, a music professor at Case Western Reserve University and historian of early music, says, "Modern poetry is more intellectual than modern songwriting."

A study released in October about the subject matter of contemporary pop music reveals, perhaps not surprisingly, that most hit songs are about sex. Analyzing 174 songs that sold well in 2009, Dawn R. Hobbs and Gordon G. Gallup Jr. of the State University of New York at Albany reported that about 92 percent related to sex and sexual relationships. That theme is a perennial preoccupation of human beings, and it helps explain why adolescents have long responded with such fervor and personal identification to pop music. It's a rite of passage for teenagers to print out favorite song lyrics and post them on a bedroom wall, so that they can be brooded over.

Sometimes, to be sure, song lyrics can be a negative force. Steve Kazmierczak, the man who killed five students and wounded others at Northern Illinois University in 2008 before killing himself, was obsessed by the lyrics of Marilyn Manson. And in the notorious murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969, the killers claimed inspiration from the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" from the 1968 album "The Beatles."

Few if any homicidal maniacs cite Sondheim's lyrics as inspiration — although his subjects have included mass murder. "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (1979), anyone?

For most teenagers, song lyrics aren't about finding excuses for crimes. They're about finding words that articulate powerful emotions.

"I think I memorized all of Joni Mitchell's lyrics when I was a teenager," admits Duffin, whose books include "Shakespeare's Songbook" (2004), which rescues the popular music — ballads, drinking songs, rounds — that abound in the Bard's work.

Just as some songwriters publish poetry, some poets write songs. Paul Muldoon, poet, Princeton University professor and poetry editor of The New Yorker, has written the libretto for four operas and writes songs for a rock band in which he plays. He wrote lyrics as well for the late Warren Zevon.

And he's firmly in the Sondheim camp when it comes to keeping poems and song lyrics in separate cultural corrals:

"They're quite different things, though often seem close," he declared in an email. "The poem is generally quite complete in itself. It brings its own music with it. The song lyric is a piece of writing which, however well it might appear to stand up on the page, is missing a component that will truly body it out and allow it to be most effective in the world.

"The trick of the great songwriter is that s/he has the capacity to write something that's not quite perfect. That's a lot more difficult to achieve than one might imagine, much more difficult than compression or simplification. Sondheim is one of the greatest songwriters of the era because he is a master not so much of what to put in as of what to leave out."

Yet Orr, whose book "Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry" (HarperCollins) was published earlier this year, believes Sondheim's lyrics do indeed merit the label "poetry": "He is interested in wordplay, in how syllables fall. It's really graceful writing and overlaps with light verse."

The words to a Sondheim song such as "Another Hundred People" from the 1970 musical "Company" could easily constitute a fine contemporary poem: "Another hundred people just got off of the train/ And came up through the ground / While another hundred people just got off of the bus/ And are looking around / At another hundred people who just got off of the plane/ And are looking at us / Who got off of the train / And the plane and the bus/ Maybe yesterday./ It's a city of strangers. …"

Enjoy Sondheim's work, but don't you dare call him a poet — except in a stage whisper.

jikeller@tribune.com

Twitter @litkell

See Stephen Sondheim

What: Sondheim will be awarded the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize

When: 10 a.m. Nov. 6

Where: Symphony Center's Armour Stage, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $5-$15. A $5-per-ticket surcharge applies to all purchases at the door. A $5 processing fee will be added to all orders placed online or by phone.

More information: 312-494-9509, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or chicagohumanities.org

Additional Tribune literary awards

What: Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson will receive the Chicago Tribune Heartland awards

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 6

Where: University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, Main Hall AB, 725 W. Roosevelt Road

Tickets: $5-$15. A $5-per-ticket surcharge applies to all purchases at the door. A $5 processing fee will be added to all orders placed online or by phone.

More information: 312-494-9509, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or chicagohumanities.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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