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Can You Turn a Poem Into a Song?

Poets and songwriters weigh in on this sometimes-elusive process


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

In his late 40s, my lawyer friend decided he wanted to be a musician, bought a guitar and taught himself to play. No lessons, just some online instruction and a good ear. Within a year, he was strumming at coffeehouses.

I watched this process in awe and thought, “Well, if he can just pick up and play songs, maybe I can just sit down and write them.” How hard could it be for a poet and fiction writer to turn a poem into a love song?

Pretty hard, it turns out. It helps to have a working knowledge of an instrument (I do) and some notion of scales and chords (I don’t). And while I often imagine stories, I never imagine music. These were substantial impediments for me. But if they aren’t for you, here are some great hints in the words of a panel of four experts: New York poet Cornelius Eady is a National Book Award finalist whose libretto for the opera Running Man was a finalist for a 1999 Pulitzer Prize. His band, Rough Magic, calls upon “troubadour traditions,” including blues and folk. M.L. Liebler is an award-winning Detroit poet who founded the rock group, The Coyote Monk Poetry Band. He has published 11 books and two vinyl recordings. Julia Brown is a Houston fiction writer and lyricist. Her genre-bending music — including Strange Scars and Jubilant Newborn Alien Haze — emphasizes meaning as well as melody. Russell Brakefield is a Grand Rapids, Mich. bluegrass musician who teaches poetry at the University of Michigan. His song, Vulpes, Vulpes, was recorded this year by Mark Lavengood.

First things first: What’s the difference between writing poems and writing lyrics?

Julia Brown: Poetry can survive on the page in a way that song lyrics don’t necessarily have to. Lyrics aren’t always a poem that you put to music. Lyrics are words plus music that result in something entirely new.

If you can play three or four chords, you can fill in the structure with any words you want. I think of it as writing audibly.

— Russell Brakefield, bluegrass musician and poet

Cornelius Eady: The main difference between a poem and a song is melody — you have to figure a way to find the right notes for those words. I think a good melody can uplift a dull lyric, but a strong lyric can’t save a weak melody.

Poems often have esoteric ideas and complex language. Does that work for lyrics?

Russell Brakefield: The great thing about music is that people can hear things on many levels. Sometimes the music speaks to you; sometimes it’s the lyrics that speak to you. I try to think about what my audience is going to receive and come up with metaphors and images that are interesting. I like to pose some questions for the listener.

Brown: I spent many hours as a child reading lyrics and making emotional sense of them. I love to listen to a song and hear a word I have to look up. That being said, with lyrics you have to always be thinking, ‘Do these words sound right together? Do they have a peculiar combination of sense and sound? Do they sound right to sing?’

Tell me a little about your process.

Brakefield: If you can play three or four chords, you can fill in the structure with any words you want. I think of it as writing audibly. I’ll usually run through a progression of chords, then start singing over that until something sticks. I don’t even write it down. I like repeating it enough that it feels natural with the music. I just throw things out there until they stick, and revising as I go.

Brown: Sometimes I play for an hour and tape it, and listen back to see if a mood or image comes up. Sometimes I will open a dictionary to a random page and pull a word or two out. Then I write a line of a song using the words. Or I’ll take a title of a novel and turn it into a song. If I were to write a song entitled, The Sun Also Rises, what would it be? I also take a book, open it up, let my eyes rest on a line and sing it. Whatever it takes to bring the song into the world.

Eady: The one thing I’ve figured out after all these years is that accidents work better for songs than poems. At the end of my arrangement to Sterling Brown’s poem Mose, my hand slipped to the wrong chord and I realized that was the best way out of the song. The Beatles were masters of that; many of what we think of their “great” moves were accidental (the alarm clock in A Day in the Life, for example).

M.L. Liebler: Normally, music is brought to me by different artists. I listen closely for the feel of the music. Next, I start leafing through my books for a poem that matches the mood of the music. It is not unusual for me to try several poems before I settle on the right poem for the right music.

How much does audience matter for a songwriter?

Liebler: Audience is the whole reason I first brought music to my poetry. I wanted “non-traditional” audiences to realize poetry is for everybody, not just the academic elite. Over the past 40 years, I have heard people in my audiences say, ‘I didn’t know poetry could sound that good and be so fun!’ Combining music and poetry helps people take the next step to reading and buying books of poetry.

Brown: Learning how to get on a stage and perform for strangers has been a gift. When it’s working, you and the audience are making a third thing together — you co-create. You have to be under a spell to get there. It’s so beautiful. I would have missed that if I hadn’t gotten on stage.

Any final words of advice?

Brakefield: Keep a junk file so that you can go back to the material you already have, pull a line and build a song around it.

Eady: If you have GarageBand or another such program on your laptop, find an old poem by a dead poet. Figure out a beat you think would match that poem. Then decide if you’re going to recite or sing it. One rule: It can’t be rap. Rule two: It’s just between yourself and the poem.

Liebler: Become familiar with poets who gave written lyrics for famous recordings. For example, Pete Brown with Cream, Keith Reid with Procol Harum, Peter Sinfield with King Crimson and poet/musicians like Dylan, Tom Waits, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Laura Nyro, P. J. Harvey, Public Enemy, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, etc.

Brown: Go see as many live performances as possible. Listening to someone play live is so inspirational. Pay attention to the dialogue between the performer, the words and the audience.

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By Desiree Cooper
Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and author of the short-story collection Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press).

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