It was now fine music...

Yesterday, I saw about a half-dozen copies of Jewel's collection of poetry, A Night Without Armor, on a bookshop shelf. It sold over a million copies, mostly to well-meaning parents and English teachers, and it's now a fixture at every used-book store in the country. It's often the entirety of the store's poetry section. I haven't read it, so I can't comment on Jewel's skill as a writer, but I'll readily admit that I still love "Who Will Save Your Soul."

Seeing so many copies of her book started me thinking about the relationship between writing lyrics and writing poems. They're basically the same thing, but entirely different. Songs rely mainly on melody and instrumentation for their impact, and the lyrics generally serve to reinforce whatever emotional goals are at play. Lyrics might be gorgeous and profound or not, but it's the guitar hook or bass line that makes you listen, that makes you want to sing along.

Poems must make their own music from the page or the stage. They can't hide inside a string section, and they have to make more direct overtures toward emotional or intellectual meaning. Few poems can succeed on sound alone.

There aren't many songwriters who call themselves poets, preferring to let devoted fans and lazy music critics do that. When a songwriter publishes a book or poetry, as Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen and Billy Corgan have all done, the poems tend to feel like unfinished songs, limp as liner notes, and are generally inferior to what the writer does best and clearly loves better: making music.

More exciting, but rarer, are the poems that start on the page and then get somehow set to music. Hundreds of years worth of religious music has been built this way, but modern and secular examples are relatively few. When it happens, the results are often stuffy or weird, but poems are often stuffy and preferably a little weird, so that's no surprise. Occasionally, though, a poem finds a new life as a song, as with Galway Kinnell's "First Song" when set and performed by Andrew Bird. Kinnell was a pleasant reader of his own work, but Bird's interpretation of the poem seems, somehow, more accurate. So let me just say right now that if anybody wants to make one of my poems into a song, go ahead. I expect a whistling solo, though.