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What do you think are the differences between a poem and a song lyric?

A student/songwriter/singer from Ohio, writes:
At least for me, I can't set out to write either a "poem" or a "song", they just come as they come. I think lyrics tend to need a little help from music to express themselves. And I think poems are better heard just against silence. I know from my own writing that my poems explain and stand for themselves, moreso than my lyrics.
Hudson Owen
A Brooklyn poet & songwriter, writes:
Lyric poems and song lyrics share much in common.  The main distinction is that poems carry the music internally in the writing itself, for example, rhyme.  Poet John Keats spoke of "ditties of no tone" in one of his poems.  Songs are often more repetitive and more emotional.  Song writing pays much better than poetry.
Frank Williamson
A Singer/Songwriter from San Diego, writes:
The biggest difference is that the meter of a poem is basically dictated by the number of syllables in a line (I assume we're talking about rhyming poems), so the rhyming patterns are pretty well fixed. In music, though, a syllable does not necessarily count for only one beat. There can be intervening beats between words or syllables, so that lines of completely unequal length can still rhyme just fine.   Also, since poems don't have a rhythm section and melody to prop them up, the words had better be damned strong.
John Wallace
A Folk performer/songwriter from Cornwall, UK, writes:
The classic question!  I read all your respondent's responses and agreed with some of them.

A good song is one in which the listener can hear and understand every word, can follow the story, and can respond, either by singing a chorus or by humming the melody.  And it must do all these things THE FIRST TIME YOU HEAR IT! A song is written intending to be performed, A poem does not have to do this,  Because it is usally read it can be savored, repeated, turned back to and scanned as often as is necessary.  It is not usually performed - most poetry is read to ones-self (yes poets - I know you're out there reciting to audiences - I did say USUALLY!  Paul simon's 'Richard Corey' is a good example of a poem that doen't hit you the first time you hear it as a song.  In fact it took me amany listenings before I could work out the lyrics, and although I sung it live for a number of years, I'm not at all sure that many people knew what is was about.  Whereas Tom Paxton's 'Going to the Zoo' is a brilliant song but a useless peom (try it!).

Keep writing - songwriters!

Irene Jackson
A performing songwriter from Victoria BC, writes:
If I said I knew the difference between a poem and a lyric, I'd be kidding myself.  I can sense a difference, more than actually technically describe one.

When I have occasionally commented that a lyric reads more like a poem than a lyric, it is often met with great defensiveness...the fact is that I think there are very few "poets" who can manage to merge their poems with music. It has really only been done with any great success by a very few people. 

To me, good poetry has always been an intense listening experience...had there been music, it would definitely have taken away from the feel of the poem.  Poetry can take on many faces, it can rhyme or not rhyme at all, it can have a metered, rhythmic feel, or it can have none.  The latest poetry reading I was at (these were published and locally known poets), was more like a prose reading...nobody read anything that rhymed, and yet there was a rise and fall in intensity and emotion that could only be described as kind of tidal. 

On the other hand, good lyrics/good songs, have always had a beautiful blend of music and words such that I can't remember one without the other they are so intertwined.

And that's about as definitive as I can be!

Geo Malen
A songwriter/producer/gulf coast, writes:
Semantics, context purpose. What do you, in your creative process, wish to say? How to best get your ideas, feelings, emotions into words, music or prose. When one needs to express these felings, the medium is not important. The ability to provoke the heart is a gift. We write lyrics to tell our stories. We write poems to explain them /or vice versa.
Jamie K. Auberg
A composer/songwriter/clarinetist from Christopher Newport University, writes:
All good lyrics should be able to be read and enjoyed without the music, but good poems do not have to be able to be set to music.  Song lyrics are really a higher level of poetry where rhythmic and melodic contours must be adhered to.  A poem can say "The soaring eagle flew high in the air" with no concern, but a song lyric with the same words must have music that agrees with it.  In other words, if the lyric says an eagle was high in the air, but the musical passage went down, then the statement would be nullified.  The lyrics and the music must agree rhythmically and must agree in direction (up or down), that is the difference between a song lyric and a poem.  Lyrics are, in my opinion, a higher and more complicated form of poetry. 
Mike Noffsinger
A Performing Songwriter from L.A, writes:
A poem is a slave to the written word ... Extricated from it's connection to the music which may normally convey emotion synergistically. In Short A poem is more focused lyrically The song is synergistically focused between lyric and musical expression
John Pavlik
A songwriter from Southern Illinois, writes:

Seriously, the intention of the writer. I think there is a difference in the two forms, meant for different settings. If you are writing a poem, you write in a certain manner. If you are writing a song, you are fitting words to verse and chorus. It's not quite the same as fitting words to a meter. Music is an integral part of the song so in a sense I guess you could think of it as a multi-dimensional poem.

Each form has its particular space. In the same vein, what's the difference between a poem and a short story? Or a poem and a novel?

Vaughan Daniel
A Published and recorded songwriter in Music City, writes:
If I gave someone a poem and asked them to put it to music, I would expect the poem to either be added to or some of it ending up on the cutting room floor. Song lyrics are dictated by the direction the music has taken with the melody. There are also formulas of structure in writing a song. Examples are as follows:
1.) Verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus
2.) Verse-verse-bridge-verse
3.) Chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus

Also, there are structures of ryhme in a song. In poetry there doesn't really have to be a rhyme skeem. Example:
1.) AA, BB-every two lines ryhme with each other
2.) AB, AB-every other line ryhmes
3.) AAB, AAB-first two ryhme and B ryhmes with each other.

These calculated lyric structures may also dictate what the song will sound like musically. If the lyrics are structured correctly, music can be invented just by the way the lyrics flow. Take any popular song and try singing it another way. Chances are you won't like what you hear. lyrics often take on a life of their own musically.

Poetry is meant to express with words and words only. Poetry doesn't have to have a ryhme structure or pattern. You could write a love letter and call it poetry if you wanted to. That doesn't mean that it would make a good song.

Herb Tyson
A Singer/songwriter from Virginia, writes:
A poem is designed to make you think, A lyric is designed to make you sing.

Did you ever notice that you can think about something else while you are singing or listening to a song? It's almost impossible to think about something else while reading a poem. A song can set your mood and can take you to other places and times that have nothing to do with the song you're listening to. A poem can take you to other places and times to, but usually only to those places and times that are the subject of the poem.

Songs are spritual. Poems are intellectual.

A poem often is the expression of one person's soul. A poem succeeds by creating an emotional connection between the reader (or listener) and the poet (hate, compassion, envy, reverence, etc.)

Lyrics seek to speak for us all. Lyrics succeed by becoming the personal expression of the singer and the listener.

But, I might be wrong...

John Roeder
A Gospel songwriter from Nashville, writes:
The difference is in the application not the form or rhyme. A poem can be spoken at any speed with any pauses or breaks that the reader or speaker may desire.

A song must fit the meter and tempo of the music. Some words that would be great for a spoken poem simply will not flow correctly when set to music. It is this flow of words, noted diction if you will, that makes the difference.

Many times I come up with a passage that fits the song and expresses my ideas exactly but I have to discard it because it does not flow correctly with the music. It would work great as a spoken poem.

Bryan Gentry
A teenage songwriter, writes:
There isn't really much of a difference, but I write both songs and poetry, so I have noticed a few. The major difference is that the writer calls poems "poems" and song lyrics "song lyrics". In other words, when you write you decide what it's going to be. Song lyrics, however, can be used as poetry, but poetry can't always but put to music. Also, poetry doesn't have as much repitition and structure when it comes to verse/chorus type stuff.
Michael Knight
A songwriter that loves bluegrass and honky tonk, writes:
Good Question!!  For me the difference between a poem and a song lyric is the use of breath and timbre.  In other words, once a poem is read, there is no difference between that and a lyric.  To me, a poem is written word, until it is spoken; and then it becomes a song.     

For instance, Tom T. Hall wrote a song which is called "Old Five and Dimers Like Me." At the end of the song, he gives a recitation which seems just as musical as the song. The importance of this is the added depth of interpretation.

We could read words, and interprate them to mean one thing. However, the spoken voice or the singing voice seems to distill an emotion that may give us a different slant on whats being said....     

In essence, there is only a difference when the poem is not read aloud. When it is read aloud, it becomes a song.....

A performing songwriter in the New York area, writes:
I think the most significant difference for the songwriter ,especially the Pop songwriter is that the song structure dictates the necesity of getting to the point quickly and not wasting a word developing a story or character.A song that goes on and on tires a listener because the same repetition that initially hooks the listner will eventually bore them if there are too many verses. Too many choruses weakens the message.A poem as a medium ,is a slower medium and because it is not married to music allows for greater freedom and less economy of development.The less dependency on rhyme of a poem allows the writer more leverage with the language.A song is much hookier much more infectious psychologically because of the same structure which seems so limiting to the writer. Songs are married to music and song structure which effect the psycomechanical impact which we all know is so powerful.

Hal Cohen
Proprietor of Li'l Hank's Guide for Songwriters, writes:
IAs far as I'm concerned, the words 'lyric' and 'poem' are almost interchangable.  The purists in both camps always seem willing to go to war over it, but quite simply, if you take the music away from a lyric it becomes poetry, and subsequently, if you put music behind and  /or give a melody to a poem, it becomes a lyric.  The most notible exceptions to this are Hai Ku, Sonnets, and Limericks, because their structure dictates certain parameters that would render them to short in length to be a song or even a ditty.  However, even using these forms as examples, I dare say, if you string a few verses together in say, Limerick format - you have a song - even if it probably is bawdy and vulgar as most usually are.

Another example might be a poem like "Richard Corey", which Paul Simon put to music. Who can deny that these verses can be construed as either a lyric or a poem?

On the inverse side of this, take just about any Bob Dylan Song and simply read it out loud at a podium in a book store on Poetry Night.  No one will question the validity of his work as poetry.  Not one soul would jump up and say, "Hey! THAT wasn't a poem!" I would venture to say that at one time, the words were completely interchangeable, as I have heard the epic "The Illiad and the Odyssy" referred to as both a lyric AND as a poem.  Later, when the zealots started getting picky about semantics, it became known as a "lyrical poetry".  Personally, I think in the end, it comes down to "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".  If you want to call it a lyric, it's a lyric, if you call it poetry, it's a poem.

What about Rap Music?  Is there any doubt in your mind that if you take the back beat, the record-scratch sounds and the volume away from a rap lyric that it would not still hold its own as poetry? You know it would.  In summary, I would have to say the only really distinguishing factor is the musical element.

Dave Weller
A songwriter (novice) in MI, writes:
Poems can become lyrics (as all of you well know).  Some poems are more suited for this purpose than others.  Many poems can be sung, but the result may not make a good song.  Can any of you set "Because I could not stop for death" to music without having it sound a little bit silly?  Yes, "Yellow Rose Of Texas" does make it sound silly!  (:

Good lyrics can be easily sung by good singers.  Good singers make lyrics sound easy to sing.  Good poems may not be easily singable by anyone, no matter who tries to set them to music.

Many good lyrics are written with melody already in the mind of the writer.  I don't believe this is generally true for poems.  Poets may be very conscious of rhythm, but not usually of melody.

Mike Burn
A worship songwriter from London, UK, specialising in all-age worship songs, writes:
What do you think are the differences between a poem and a song lyric?:  The obvious answer is the right one in my view, that is, a song lyric has music, and a poem does not.

However, it's not as simple as that, because if you take the music away from a song lyric, and read it out loud, then it "becomes" a poem, and if you set a poem to music, it becomes a song lyric.

A friend of mine writes new lworship yrics for exisitng tunes, but also publishes them as poetry.

From the secular world, one of my favourite artists is Elton John, whose song lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin as poems, before Elton set them to music.

Ted Hoffman
A guitar player from Kansas City,writes:
Poetry stands on its own. Poetry doesn't necessarily have to rhyme, (I suppose lyrics don't either). Not that poetry can't be set to music, nor lyrics read. But the music carries them special meaning. Ideally, in some cases they could be used either way (some of Lyle Lovett's stuff comes to mind) but compare the lyrics to "Born on the Bayou" with haiku. Actually, I believe some examples are in order. I'll try and fetch some.
Denise Jachymowski
A beginner songwriter from MN, writes:
Both of them are from the heart, but a song lyric is the version of a poem that is expressed more than a poem.  You can feel the emotion more and feel the idea from the writer's prospective.
Jeff Johnson
A songwriting Producer from NH, writes:
Lyric Phrasing is dependant on the singer. In a song, meter becomes the rhythm and may vary, accents and timing must closely bond with the  Music   

To me, a Poem is 2-D, it takes Music, to set the words free. Unless you do rap .. then..    Out de Dooh and on de Flooh will suffice. isn't music though..

Chris Conway
An Andromedan songwriter living in the UK, writes:
Hmmn, a semantics thing here, partly - what is poetry? etc. However - some poems make good lyrics, some lyrics make good poetry. It could be said that a lyric is a poem that fits well with the music.
Joe Kesselman
A filker/folkie, concertina/percussion from NY, writes:
Difficult question. I've tried several answers and I haven't found one I really like.

Lyrics really are held to a different set of standards than poems are. I don't know if this is because they're delivered differently, or because we've established different conventions for how we listen to them.

Rhymes that don't work when spoken may work when sung. The closing consonant may be held until after the similarity has been established. The song may dip into dialect ("you can tell when I tawk that I come from Noo Yawk") without being obvious about it. And the fact that song _is_ stylized speech suppresses many details -- compare the Beatles speaking accent with their singing accent. I've noticed that many professionally-written songs seem to rely on this, using rhymes that us amateurs can't get away with, and it doesn't always seem to be done for deliberate emphasis.

On the other hand: Lyrics sorta have to scan to the music, unless you're dealing with operatic recatitives or avant-garde(sp?) compositions; that imposes a set of constraings upon style. (And non-rhythmic lyrics would be the very devil to perform...) Scansion may be a tighter requirement than rhyme is, since I can think of successful non-ryming songs (_Frank_Mills_ from _Hair_, or _Lullabye_For_a_Weary_World_)... but lyrics that give up even the grace-note connection to their song seem to break free and turn into recitation-plus-music, if they work at all.

(Writing good non-rhyming lyrics seems to be much harder than rattling off doggerel -- perhaps because the constraints of having to rhyme force closer attention to choice of word and phrase. I've never tried writing poetry of that style, so I don't know if it's true there too.)

((Possible title for an empty notebook: "A Child's Garden of Blank Verses.")) Perhaps the point here is that listeners expect songs to scan and rhyme, and work hard to make them do so unless they clearly aren't intended to. That means minor breaks in the pattern are likely to be interpolated past, and major breaks can be used for emphasis... but it also means that if you break too often without doing so completely or making it obvious that the breaks are deliberate, it's likely to be heard as trying- to-rhyme-but-failing.

Possible illustration of how strong the expectation of rhyme is in a song lyric: _The_ _Clean_Song_ and its relatives, which are funny precisely because they never complete the obviously intended rhymes, leaving that to the audience. Or _I_Am_An_Old_Cow-Puncher_, where the rhyming syllable is sung by the audience.

... Hope something in that is useful. I'm looking forward to reading the other responses to this one!

(added 7/13/98)
I was reminded last night that Partch invented his 43-note-per-octave scale in part because he wanted to be able to represent the inflections of American speech. There are portions of some of his vocal works which the audience hears as speech -- but which are in fact notated very precisely for pitch and duration.

Arguably, in these compositions the audience hears the performance as poetry even though the performer treats it as singing. Good demonstration of the fact that the line between the two is fuzzy at best.

Ignacio Lopez
A truly facinating individual with a coloured past (ie: he gave me no description), writes:
Sometimes there  is no difference. Some poems can't be put to music very easily. Poems can be really long and still make it commercially. Lyrics don't have to mean anything, some poems try to be meaningful and still mean nothing. Lyrics are easier to remember 'cause of  the music.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi
A songwriter/writer/editor from Toronto Canada, writes:
I think that the main difference is music. You can turn a poem into a song lyric by adding music. You can turn a song lyric into a poem by removing the music (it may not be a GOOD poem, of course :-)).
Regina Nixon
A begining songwriter from Phoenix, writes:
Both a poem and song lyric are used to express an idea, but a poem has a different meter to it.  It doesn't have to have regular phrasing or flowing coherant thought to express that idea that is found in music.  Music, as a rule uses a situation or story to express the idea of love or lonliness, etc...
Fred Haddock
A singer/songwriter from El Paso,Tx, writes:
Good and difficult question which probably caused me to think a little too hard.The answer, I think,is simple.With or without music a poem and lyric are pretty much interchangeable. However,I don't think that poetry read to music instantly transforms into a lyric and likewise,a song lyric read out of its musical context does not become poetry. I suppose I haven't really answered the question at all and this wise question will undoubtedly fuel eternal debate.I look forward to reading other posted answers.
Sam Baardman
A folksinger-songwriter, writes:
As I read over the responses to the question, it seems to me that people are concentrating on the wrong thing--that is, the text itself.  It seems to me that the difference between the two is in the "act."  What are people using the text for? If they're using the text for poetic purposes, then it's a poem, and if they're using the text in the way songsters usually use it, then it can be a song.

Stanley Fish, a famous literary theorist once had a list of assigned readings on the board in a classroom.  When the class filed in, he told them it was a poem and they should "interpret" it. Well, they were able to do it successfully because they "used" it as a poem.  Heck, a grocery list can be a poem if we use that text in the way that poets and critics use texts.

The difference between lyrics and poems is in the activities we associate with these texts and not in the texts themselves.

A traveler from Anchorage, Alaska, writes:
I'm just a simple dabbler in the arts and don't know as much as any of you, but I think there is no difference between the two.  Both carry melodies and neither need a chorus.  If you go back a couple hundred years you'd hear bards singing their songs and their lyrics, which we would call poems by todays standards. And if you look at Shakespear you will see that language is ever changing, so a hundred years from now my guess is no one will know, and rightfully so.
David R
A budding songwriter/multi-style pianist from Toronto, Canada, writes:
A poem is a self-sufficient piece of text. A song lyric, however, is not fully complete until music is set to it. Even "rap" is not complete until there is a musical backdrop. Also, brevity is a very important thing in music, because in this age we have short attention spans. This isn't the 70's with long epics like "Kashmir." The public can't really handle that anymore.
Sherman Dorn
A soul brother of Tom Paxton, though he doesn't know I'm alive, and I have infinitely less talent, writes:
Poems can be considerably more dense than a song lyric.  One can sit with many poems to absorb and ponder them.  In that way, "Ars Poetica" describes an aspect of poetry that songs cannot capture.  I have listened to many songs repeatedly and enjoy new aspects of them.  Nonetheless, song lyrics are a category of poems that are of the more transparent, breezy type.  Even "deep" songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" are provocative not because one must read/listen to them carefully but rather because the words are easy to "grasp" but not necessarily the fundamental idea.
Frederick Ingram
An amateur poet, songwriter, and guitarist  from South Carolina, writes:
People expect a depth from real poems that is hard to carry in a song lyric. Poems should work at several levels.

Song lyrics have to sound good. A lot of writers need to pay attention to scansion because it makes words fit so much more easily. Lyrics often have devices such as repetition and rhyme that are less reflective and more designed to stick in your memory, to invite joining in, etc.

I have heard so many rock lyrics that are simply stupid. It's almost a part of the genre. But it is possible for words to sound great when sung and also carry a great depth of meaning. But musicians and the industry don't seem to place much of a priority on having lyrics of a very high standard. Although totally awful ones--the ones that make people cringe--do seem guaranteed to close doors for you.

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