Sunday, January 24, 2010

Music: Lyrics as Poetry / Tom Waits

There is many a time that I have commented that the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Billy Joel should be taught in schools as poetry. No doubt many would agree. This however raises an issue of whether song lyrics can be, or should be, considered to be poetry.

There are those who argue that lyrics are lyrics and poetry is poetry eg “Music lyrics are not poetry” at

This raises the issue of what is poetry? Two quotations immediately come to mind. The first is that a poem is like a hippopotamus: hard to describe but you know one when you see one. The other is a quote from one of my favourite books, 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' (Through the Looking Glass).

Poetry is hard to define. It can be rhyming or with free verse, with pentameter or without. It can be epic or a haiku. If poems can be set to music (eg Slim Dusty doing Banjo Patterson’s works), why cannot songs without the music be poems?

Rather than embarking on a definition, I propose to stick with the above quotations and simply set out my views:
1. Not all lyrics can be considered to be poetry.
2. There are lyrics that make good poetry.
3. Some lyrics make better poetry than straight out poems.

Having commented as above,  consider a work by Tom Waits. Born 1949, Waits is both a performer and songwriter. Accompanied by his own piano playing, he doesn’t so much sing as growl. His voice has been described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."

Tom Waits’ performance of his poignant and haunting song A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis can be seen at:

The lyrics are as follows and need no further comment:

Hey Charley I'm pregnant and living on 9th street
Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid avenue
And I stopped taking dope and I quit drinking whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone and works out at the track.

And he says that he loves me even though it’s not his baby
And he says that he'll raise him up like he would his own son
And he gave me a ring that was worn by his mother
And he takes me out dancin’ every Saturday night.

And hey Charley I think about you every time I pass a fillin' station
On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair
And I still have that record of Little Anthony & the Imperials
But someone stole my record player, how do you like that?

Hey Charley I almost went crazy after Mario got busted
So I went back to Omaha to live with my folks
But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison
So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay.

Hey Charley I think I'm happy for the first time since my accident
And I wish I had all the money that we used to spend on dope.
I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of ‘em
I'd just drive a different car every day dependin’ on how I feel.

Hey Charley, for chrissakes do you want to know the truth of it?
I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone
And I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer
And Charley, hey I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.

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