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The Difference Between Song Lyrics and Poetry

A while ago there was a general discussion on Rob Mackenzie's Surroundings about song lyrics, and whether or not they constitute poetry. It's my belief that song lyrics are not poetry, as they lack the singularity that the good poem possesses. That is, a good poem creates its own music, it stands alone and functions as verbal or written words on the page or the stage with no distinct and seperate musical elements to make it up and lend the words their weight and poignancy. That said, and song lyrics can work quite well on their own from time to time: Bob Dylan being a prime exponent of what might be called poetic songs, for example. Below, then, I thought I'd post lyrics to one of the better tracks of Bloc Party's latest album, 'Uniform', from A Weekend in the City. I'm a big fan of this song, and think its message is pretty well executed, but when I came to read these lyrics on the page, they lacked something. Worse, they'd gained a kind of contrivedness, and a sort of almost snivelling tone that isn't comparable to the way they're delivered on record: all driving guitars, e-bows, and epic, crashing solos that punctuate the lyrics with explosive fireworks. If you haven't heard the song, see what you make of them anyway: I'd be interested to know.


Uniform

There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall
All the young people looked the same
Wearing their masks of cool and indifference
Commerce dressed up as rebellion

'Cause we're so handsome and we're so bored
So entertain us, tell me a joke
Make it long, make it last
Make it cruel, just make me laugh
We can't be hurt, we can't be hurt

Drink to forget your blues on the weekend
Think about more things to buy
The TV taught me how to sulk and love nothing
And how to grow my hair long

'Cause we're so handsome and we're so bored
So entertain us, tell me a joke
Make it long, make it last
Make it cruel, just make me laugh
We can't be hurt, we can't be hurt
We can't be hurt

So why do you go picking fights that you'll lose?
(When you have entertainment. When you have things to pass the time)
So why do you go thinking thoughts that are above you?
(You can be happy, just play dumb. You can be happy, just play dumb)

Well I was brave (and unique), intelligent (a snowflake)
I could have been a hero
No-one can be trusted over the age of fourteen
Tattoo our arms (Converse shoes), cynical (we still do it)
We tell ourselves we're different
I've gotten so good at lying to myself

(Oh!)
All my pain and honour is used up
(Oh! Oh! Oh!)
All my guns are rusted

So when you gonna realise
Those are not your wrongs to right?
Have another line, have another drink
(Pop songs won't change the government, the government)

I am a martyr, I just need a motive
I am a martyr, I just need a cause
I'm a believer, I just need a moment
I'm a believer, I just need a cause

We're finding it hard to break the mould
We're finding it hard to be alone
We're finding it hard to have time by ourselves
We have nothing at all to say

Uniform

There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall
All the young people looked the same

lyrics by Kele Okereke of Bloc Party

Comments

Cailleach said…
I think it just shows how much music lends that extra layer to things, and how hard poetry has to be made to work.
Ben Wilkinson said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
His debut full collection of poems, Way More Than Luck, appeared from Seren Books in February 2018.
He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

You can follow Ben on Twitter - @BenWilko85 - and on Facebook.

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Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …