Can song lyrics be poetry?
Without a doubt lyrics contain poetic elements, but whether they would have the same effect and power as pure poetry written down on paper without musical accompaniment and vocal performance, is another matter. The answer is probably not, however, as we know poetry began as an oral tradition, and in the medieval era there would have been no distinction between the lyrics of a ballad and the composition of a poem. In fact a ‘ballad’ is now both a recognised poetic form (quatrains of abab rhyme scheme in alternating iambic trimetre and tetrameter) and the term used to describe a slow, often romantic, song.
Recently a band, “The Waterboys”, released an album called “An Appointment with Mr Yeats”, in which fourteen of Yeats’s poems are set to music. The result is utter brilliance. The natural cadences and rhythms of the poems are used to create musical melodies: especially in such poems as “The Hosting of the Shee” in which the driving dactylic fits perfectly to a pulsing drum-beat. In this instance it is literally the case that the lyrics of the songs are established poetry, sung and accompanied instrumentally, showing that it is entirely possible for lyrics to have poetical devices and forms as well as strong melody and rhythm.
Certainly not all lyrics will have equal formal distinction as the poetry of Yeats, but many song lyrics are composed to create onomatopoeic effects. In the song “Invincible” by Muse, from their album “Black Holes and Revelations” the lyrics are largely composed in perfect trochaic, i.e. a stress followed by a un-stress making up one ‘foot’ of metre: