Skip to main content

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.


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

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


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


Unknown 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.

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry in Motion

POETRY IN MOTION Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land , to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement , who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood th

Michael Hofmann - Changes

Changes Birds singing in the rain, in the dawn chorus, on power lines. Birds knocking on the lawn, and poor mistaken worms answering them ... They take no thought for the morrow, not like you in your new job. - It paid for my flowers, now already stricken in years. The stiff cornflowers bleach, their blue rinse grows out. The marigolds develop a stoop and go bald, orange clowns, straw polls, their petals coming out in fistfuls ... Hard to take you in your new professional pride - a salary, place of work, colleagues, corporate spirit - your new femme d'affaires haircut, hard as nails. Say I must be repressive, afraid of castration, loving the quest better than its fulfilment. - What became of you, bright sparrow, featherhead? poem by Michael Hofmann republished with permission of the author first published in The New Yorker from Acrimony (Faber, 1986) I've loved Hofmann's poetry since I first came across an old copy of what I still think hi

Louis MacNeice

‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural’. Even if you’re not that well-versed in modern British and Irish poetry, chances are you’ll still know ‘Snow’, or a line or two from the poem will seem naggingly familiar. While still in his twenties, Louis MacNeice wrote it in 1935, and since then, it’s been a favourite with readers, writers and editors, cropping up in every kind of poetry anthology. Weird, then, that MacNeice’s work has often been seen as a footnote to that of his illustrious pal W.H. Auden, when he’s so clearly a hugely original poet in his own right. And when, among more recent generations, the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Don Paterson and Conor O’Callaghan have all cited him as a major influence in their own writing. It’s not like ‘Snow’ was a one hit wonder, either. Despite some of the less exciting – and often lengthy – stuff he wrote in the early 50s, MacNeice only got better, perfecting his moving, atmospheric an