New York City skyline at night




Utterance and Hum: The Difference Between Poem and Song
—A Self-Interview
by David Francis

Guitarist, Robert Dunn

Robert Dunn

Q: Give an example of an artist who is known for his poetry and his songwriting.

A: Leonard Cohen. I prefer his songs because his melodies add a lot, so it's a more rich experience.

Q: Wouldn't that generally be true?

A: Not necessarily. With Cavafy or Reznikoff, I don't want to hear their lyrics sung. Their self-sufficiency on the page is just right, satisfies.

Q: What quality makes a poem or a song bear and invite repeated reading and listening?

A: A roundedness.

Q: How does a melody affect words as lyrics?

A: A good melody can help along words that might not stand alone.

Q: Give an example.

A: The lyric to "Lines in Blue Ink" was written in a notebook but I knew it wasn't a poem. A couple of years went by, one afternoon I put a melody to it and it came to life as a song.

Q: What if you feel the melody is not as strong as the words? What do you do then?

A: I probably wouldn't use that song. I might perform it once or twice, probably wouldn't record it

Q: Do you have a standard for songwriting? Do you have a poetics?

A: I suppose my standard is architectural. Solidity. Yet there must be as with a bridge some built-in allowance for torsion. These concerns are structural.

Finally a poem or a song are flavors and experiences, pleasures found in meaning, espresso while in reverie. Savored emotion. Yes, it is always that they must be returned to. They are durable and particular, of a kind.

Q: Do you use exact rhyme?

A: It bothers me when I don't. The truth is, if you have something that works, you're probably not going to alter it for the sake of a principle.

Q: How long does it take you to compose a song?

A: Each one has its story. "Fake Valentine" took a few minutes. I could hardly write it fast enough. A line came, a rhyme scheme, a quick decision to break from the rhyme in the fourth line: ABAC — tie it up with a refrain — I wrote the chords quickly above the words. It was written in a heat or absolute zero chill of intolerable emotion. I don't recall how I got the title which is not contained in the lyric.

Then I have a song "Always" which was one verse written in 1979, the second verse finished in 2000!

That's slow even for a Southerner.

Q: Do some poems lend themselves to being recorded more than others?

A: Yes. Short lyrics and more colloquial poems work better, because they're easier to follow.

Dense metaphysical or allusive poems are hard because the listener can't go back and read over a line or a word.

Q: Obviously it's different if the listener has read the poem.

A: Quite. I love the Caedmon Stevens reading "The Idea of Order at Key West," but I'd read it many times before I bought the record.

Q: It seems to me that most contemporary melodies (as well as song lyrics) are less experimental than their poem counterparts can be.

A: Well, a melody can be as experimental as a poem. The thing to consider is whether that melody would be accessible. How unorthodox and challenging a melody seems is a matter of the education and taste of the listener. The degree of repetition in a melody is a mnemonic help like a rhyme or parallelism in a poem.

In other words, there are conventions to melody-making, but no absolute rules. More like policies. It depends upon how much freedom and responsibility the listener is ready or inclined to assume.

Q: Is it the same Muse that presides over the writing of a poem and a song?

A: I don't know. I know that my experience writing poetry has shown up in my songwriting, particularly in the album Fake Valentine.

Q: Can song lyrics be more naive, cliched, simple?

A: There is more poetic license in a song than in a poem.

Q: What do you mean? Isn't that a paradox?

A: Melody charms. A person with charisma can say something and it will seem more profound and convincing than it actually is. The transcript can have a very different and revealing effect.

Q: Give a specific example, please.

A: In "Fake Valentine" the refrain is "pretending pretending pretending all of the time." I certainly wouldn't want to try to publish that in a poetry journal. But in the song it is the hook that links the verses. Besides, the chordal descension gives each "pretending" a different weight and as a singer I can give the (on the page) trite phrase emotion by inflecting each "pretending" slightly differently. In the song the repetition — with the guitar chords — hammers into the listener's head the awful revelation and resignation that the verses explore and elucidate.

Q: Other instances of song lyrics being "non-poetic-on-the-page?"

A: I have a song called "A Bad Attitude" whose title is not in the text. The title is an ironic comment on the text, but it wouldn't have the same effect without that specific melody, a meditative scale-like exercise which goes into wide intervals of pitch. I cannot imagine the process of assembling the elements of title, words and tune — without the tune.

In a song you have lyrics working against melody, but you also have conventions and connotations for both words and tune — as a whole and separately! So that a listener can say "Weird lyrics" or "Weird time," that the lyrics are deep, the melody derivative or vice versa.

For a good craftsman, this gives him more chance of success; while this makes it clear why songwriting can be a two-person job.

Q: How do you decide whether a lyric will remain a poem or be turned into a song?

A: Often I'll write a few quatrains or even a "song" with verses and chorus. These writings live in my notebooks like bats in the reptile house at the zoo, they never see the light of day. Some are too singsong or clichéd to be poems, too flat or prosy to be songs. Mainly they are not promising: like pre-Wright Brothers attempts to fly, they never get off the ground. Actually they lack both traits of birds: their song and their wings.

Q: To reiterate?

A: There are different kinds of repetition in songs. That is too large a subject. The structure with verses sharing an identical melody, repetition of the chorus (same words, same melody) — this kind I use in a lot of songs.

But in Poems there is only one that repeats a line, "Rain." The refrain goes: "Brown shoes. White pants. Keep walking." Each refrain is followed by an image glimpsed while walking in a city during a rain.

Q: So, poems and songs may or may not have repetition, but what is the essential difference...?

A: What happens when after a few guitar chords, instead of a singing voice we hear a reciting voice — or when we choose a volume of poems instead of a CD of music? Both, if good, are charming. But we seek poetry when we want to be charmed by thoughts, sensations and emotions in words whose melody is meter or a conscious and deliberate break from meter into units of words floating in spaces of silence.

Those are words apt enough to pay attention to: the silence, the spatiality is that of our own mind. The words those of another consciousness which we enjoy, criticize, reject, sometimes even shiver from.

Q: Defend your thesis that poems are different from songs.

A: It's important to state that there is not simply a little tailoring involved in turning a poem into a song or vice versa; perhaps I should give an example off Poems and discuss why I should not want to make it a song.

Her eyes have sleep in them,
her lips are misshaped;
looking out the window
this section of the city's clock
with the correct time on one side,
on the other not,
she sips the wine
and leaves off sipping.
At the corner we part
with a quick kiss,
I have faith in her kiss
though we live apart.

What is this poem about? It seems to be about the early courting phase of a relationship. The clock is a symbol, an omen. The lovers have two elements against them: time and distance. Yet both elements may be on their side as well. It is a dramatic scene told in the briefest lyric. But, I think, the effect, the duration, the reliance on symbols and clues would be almost impossible to achieve in a song. The objectivity of tone and detail render it inappropriate for treatment as a song.

Conversely, the narrative ballad, the refrain, the verse/chorus form of a song can only on rare occasions stand alone or be altered into a poem which says: Consider each word, each line, each image as the touches of a sculptor who sings in contour and surface.

The poet recites in the musical properties of words.

Q: Concluding insights?

A: If a person recites to himself and falters, forgets the rest, unable to go on, that's it. But often a person begins a song, quickly realizing he doesn't know the words, but he can substitute words, carried by the infectious melody, he can hum.

Poems are uttered. Songs are hummed. Between utterance and hum the connotations of poetic and musical live.


David Francis is a singer-songwriter and poet based in New York. He has performed with the late Maureen Holm and with George Dickerson. Last year, David released a CD of poems with music, Poems. New verse is forthcoming in Lucid Rhythms, Pennine Platform, and Decanto.