Poetry and lyric writing

I really liked this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing what he would say to black high school kids and you should read the whole thing, but I liked this part in particular:

I would not urge you simply to get off the PlayStation. I would urge you to understand who made the game. I would not urge you to take down your King James poster. I would urge you to think about the business that makes him possible. Perhaps you’d like to be part of that business some day. I would urge you think about what Kendrick is doing in his lyrics, to think about music. Do you know how to read music? Have you learned an instrument? Would that interest you? How about poetry? Have you ever read any? Would you consider trying to write some of your own?

This sort of thing applies to everyone.  Around the time I started playing music I was also introduced to poetry by my high school English teacher, Mr Paine.  I was always really interested in literature but that year we read works by modernist poets- WB Yates, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot.

I’d never really read much poetry before that- I don’t know too many junior high schoolers who- but I’d had things like Robert Frost or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow read to me.  I’d thought it was corny.  I still do.

I took the road less traveled and that made all the difference…

Yeah yeah, blah blah blah.

But something connected when I read Eliot and Pound.  These were descriptive.  They weren’t reaching for hokey rhymes.  They used meter and descriptive language.


Of all the things I have learned about making music, understanding meter is one of the most important.  Which isn’t to say I’m one of those people who can read a poem and tell you it’s in iambic pentameter (actually, maybe I could), but I understand one basic concept- the way you arrange words on paper will determine how people read them.  AND you have to arrange words so that the syllables you naturally emphasize work with the rhythm of your poem or song.

For instance, here’s what happens if you just slam words together willy-nilly, blithely ignoring natural emphasis on syllables:

Some people like this song, I guess.  Maybe I’m too orthodox, but I hear this and cringe.

The great thing about understanding the concept of meter is that I’ll get an idea for the hook of a song, and I’ll write it down.  Because I can arrange words on paper I don’t need to carry around a recording device.

Descriptive language

This was the other thing I learned.  Use concrete words.  Words that mean the same thing to everyone.  Here’s a famous poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

It’s brilliant.  Like he’s painted with words.  You and I read that and see mostly the same thing.  If I wrote a poem about love and death and friendship, etc. we’d come up with wildly different ideas about what it was about.  And to a certain degree that’s good, it gives the reader space to make up their own mind.  But too much and your lyrics or poem will suck.

This is why Notorius BIG was so highly regarded:

Other parts of this song get quoted more often, but this is great poetry:

Remember back in the days, when niggaz had waves
Gazelle shades, and corn braids
Pitchin pennies, honies had the high top jellies
Shootin skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly
Loungin at the barbeques, drinkin brews
With the neighborhood crews, hangin on the avenues

Anyway, I thought Ta-Nehisi’s advice was really good.  You go through life acquiring knowledge and you never know where you’re going to use it, if at all.  But when you do it’s pretty cool.


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