Taylor Swift, Shakespeare and BTS: Can Modern Music be considered Poetry?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and are not representative of the platform itself.

Picture this: after an exhausting day you plug in your headphones and stream your favorite songs on Spotify to unwind. But here’s the thing. You’re not listening to just music; you’re listening to poetry that will be a part of the English curriculum a few centuries later, right next to the beloved Shakespeare and Chaucer. These are texts that students will study and take exams for. Might sound bizarre but according to some, the music of artists like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey means just that. For some, this statement is history in the making whereas for others it is a form of literary blasphemy. Regardless of whatever bandwagon you are a part of, it raises an interesting question: can music be considered poetry? Both are mediums of creative expression, running back to the earliest of times. But where do these paths converge? 

While tracing the origins of poetry, one is bound to come across surprising facts. Poetry’s early development was through oral tradition i.e. poetry was recited (or sung) out loud to be shared with others. Many of these early poems were rhythmic and revolved around various topics, ranging from religion and love to fiction. These poems were performed by bards who were professional storytellers employed for this purpose. Hence, the rhythmic structure of these poems helped the bards memorize them, similar to how modern songwriters focus on rhyming to make their songs catchy and memorable. An example of such a classic rhythmic poem is Homer’s The Odyssey which uses repetition and strict poetic structure to be able to be performed easily. Therefore, we can say that poetry has its origins steeped in musical tradition, and some poems can function as songs. But does this work the other way around?

Music can be Poetry…

When diving into this debate, it is necessary to explore the structural composition of music and poetry. Structurally, music and poetry have more in common than we think. Much like music, poetry has to be heard out loud to be appreciated  as poets use phonetics to enhance the meaning of the written word. One way to achieve this is through the repetition of certain sounds through literary devices like alliteration. But the element which adds to the musicality of a poem is the meter which is its rhythmic structure. Meter is the number of syllables in a line, some being stressed (enunciated with more emphasis) while others are unstressed (enunciated with less emphasis). As for what a syllable is, it is one complete sound within the pronunciation of a word. For instance, in this haiku, a Japanese poem with a fixed number of syllables, by Apollo, the number of syllables is as follows (brownie points for you if you recognize where this is from).

By using different combinations of syllables, different meters are created. When these meters are used, the result is a poem that sounds like a song when read out loud.  For example, the following stanza from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe might be your farthest guess of a musical poem considering the recurring theme of grief and loss prevalent throughout the poem. Yet the way its words rhyme in a systematic pattern and the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables give it a musical quality when read. 

Interestingly, music is also patterned similarly. In music, the tempo i.e the measure of how slow or fast the music sounds, is created through beats instead of syllables. A beat is the pulse of the music,  the harmonic element that remains consistent throughout the song. These beats combine to form a meter (same name!) which consists of a combination of stressed and unstressed beats. This is why Taylor Swift’s invisible string sounds so peaceful and earthy. Its tempo is measured at 83 beats per minute which when combined with her soft vocals and mythopoeic lyricism, instantly makes you feel at home. In contrast, …Ready For It? has an electric feel to it, giving it a tempo of 160 beats per minute. The tempo, when combined with the rhythm which is the systematic placement of these sounds, makes music music.

With these structural similarities, the stance that music can be considered poetry is undeniably strengthened.

…Actually, no. 

The reason why the literary world has refused to acknowledge music as poetry is because of the writing. Literary experts gatekeep their area of expertise from musical influence because they believe that modern music does not possess the literary merit to be labeled poetry. And there is some wisdom in their words. If you have ever had the misfortune of listening to the poetic genius of Justin Beiber’s song Yummy (an ode to his wife), you would understand their point of view. For a song titled so, it has no flavor, and instead relies on cringey metaphors and endless repetition to try to sound pleasing (he admits so himself). Therefore, for songwriting to be considered worthy of scholarly analysis, it has to go beyond the confines of everyday language and adopt a more evocative style. 

But wait…

By the above definition, any piece of songwriting that is both linguistically and structurally sound can be considered poetry. To say that good music cannot be considered poetic is a kind of debasing: it portrays the genre of music as “lesser” in significance than poetry. To say that all music consists of cheesy rhymes and surface-level metaphors sounds like the words of a literary snob. Yet there seems to be no consensus in the literary world that song lyrics should be taken as a serious form of literature.

So what does this mean? (Spoiler: There is no right answer.)

Much like anything concerned with art and its meaning, there is no right or wrong. Music can be poetry, yet it cannot be. Some view music lyrics as shallow in meaning while others will go to the depths to discover the true meaning and intent of the songwriter. It simply depends on your perspective (and the quality of the lyrics, of course). So if you think Taylor Swift is the true successor to Shakespeare, then technically no one can prove you wrong. 

P.S. No hate intended toward Justin Beiber. Blame the songwriters, not him.

Information links:

For Music:

For poetry:

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37637797https://www.poemofquotes.com/articles/the-music-poetry-connection.php

by Fiza Wasim

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