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Too Marvelous for Words

- Abstract

Do the lyrics of popular songs qualify as poetry?

In 2000, the Library of America published American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, a two-volume anthology in which Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You,” Lorenz Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night” were printed side by side with such classics of American verse as T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Though the critical response was mixed, the editors’ decision reflected a growing consensus that at least some of the work of the lyricists of the pre-rock era is worthy of serious consideration as a species of poetry.

The case against treating song lyrics as poetry, however, is both easily made and generally convincing. To begin with, most golden-age song lyrics were written for preexisting melodies, and thus have no independent metrical life. In addition, many of the best-known pop songs were originally composed for Broadway musicals, meaning that they first had to fulfill utilitarian theatrical considerations before seeking to make any kind of purely expressive statement. Similarly, not only are the vast majority of lyrics—and virtually all of the well-known ones—about romantic love, but they are specifically tailored to appeal to a mass audience.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.