John Philip Drury – Guest editorial
Poetry, Song, and Tortured Poets

Drury LE P&W April 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing April 2024.

Poetry, Song, and Tortured Poets – Guest Editorial by John Philip Drury.

John’s latest book, The Teller’s Cage: Poems and Imaginary Movies (Able Muse Press, 2024) is available here:

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan wikimages
Joan Baez and Dylan during the civil rights “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, August 28, 1963. Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Part of the news entangled with this year’s Super Bowl and the 2024 Grammy Awards was the announcement by Taylor Swift that her new album would be released in April, just in time for National Poetry Month (chosen for that honor because T.S. Eliot, or one of his personae in The Waste Land, called it “the cruellest month,” responsible for “mixing / Memory and desire”). The title of her new release will be The Tortured Poets Department, and the combination of “cruelty” and “torture” certainly constitutes a semantic rhyme. But the word “Poet,” so prominently displayed, is what has stirred derision and debate among poets on Facebook.

Viewing the online volleying, I was especially struck by a post from Les Kay, a poet and former PhD student of mine. In a reply to a comment, he says, “I don’t hold to the opinion that songs and poems are equivalent. Though I do think of poems as a kind of song. To me (despite what the Nobel Prize committee has said) they’re wildly different genres & in my experience, the one sort of writing is not like the other (just as writing a short story isn’t the same as writing an essay).”

As someone whose songwriting as a teenager led to writing poems for the page, I’ve thought about this distinction between genres for decades. I’ve taught many iterations of a Music and Poetry course, and one course on The Poetry of Bob Dylan. My belief is that all song lyrics are poems, but most lyrics in popular songs are bad or mediocre as poems. They don’t have to be imaginative, rich in imagery, or inventive in diction, since the music and the production in the recording studio provide sonic energy, the propulsion of percussion, and locomotion. All the words need to do is flash emotional cue cards, preferably clever, providing hooks to accompany the catchiness of the melodies and chord progressions.

I’m not even sure that song lyrics belong in a different genre, like epic, narrative, epistolary, satirical, or dramatic poems. The arena of lyric poetry contains multitudes, some singing and some thinking quietly. But I don’t think they’re different in kind.

In the opening paragraph of Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, John Hollander points out the difference between verse and poetry, making the point that “The study of rhetoric distinguishes between tropes, or figures of meaning such as metaphor and metonymy, and schemes, or surface patterns of words. Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design. But the blueprints of verse can be used to build things made of literal, or nonpoetic material—a shopping list or roadside sign can be rhymed—which is why most verse is not poetry.”

Prose poems, for example, are not verse, and they qualify as poems through feats of imagination and observation. If they do not succeed in that performance, they are merely prose. For anyone interested in the historical relationship between music and poetry, John Hollander’s Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form offers an erudite and fascinating discourse.

I’m interested in Les Kay’s notion of “poems as a kind of song,” the vice-versa of this comparison. Although most songs are rhymed and in meter, the poem-as-song could certainly be written in free verse, like the long lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In my Music and Poetry courses, I devoted one class to a consideration of Section 15, which begins “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft, / The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp” and continues with a marvelous, imagistic, and musical catalogue of people all over the United States of America in 1855. Although everyone knows that Whitman’s long lines and anaphora owe a debt to the King James version of the Bible, Whitman once said, “But for opera I would never have written ‘Leaves of Grass.’”

Ed Folsom, co-director of the online Walt Whitman Archive, has noted that there’s “a long history of Whitman talking about his own poetry as being very much operatic. Critics have seen in his poetry a kind of continual interplay between something you might think of as recitative, and something you might think of as aria.” In class, we went around the room, each of us reading a line, and then we watched a video of Luciano Pavarotti singing the recitative “Tombe degli avi miei” and the aria “Fra poco a me ricovero” from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (, an opera Whitman reviewed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1847. I don’t think he knew much Italian, and neither did members of my class, but we could hear the surging cadences of the melodies.

Suppose that recorded music simply disappeared (through a global power failure or digital apocalypse), and the only evidence remaining lay in printed lyrics. How would that be different than words originally written to be sung (like the odes of Sappho) for which the melody and accompaniment on the lyre had not been notated? We could still consider and judge the surviving words: Good poem or bad? Poem or non-poem? Poetry or merely verse?

Anthologies and textbooks have presented anonymous traditional ballads, such as “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allen,” as poems for over a hundred years, most often without the music. The first sestinas, by Troubadours Arnaut Daniel and Bertran de Born, were actually songs, and a medieval score has survived. Most of the musical settings of Shakespeare’s songs have been lost, but they appear as poems in his plays. I would single out several: “When daisies pied and violets blue” and “When icicles hang by the wall,” representing Spring and Winter at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost; “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” in Much Ado about Nothing; “Under the greenwood tree” and “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” in As You Like It; “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” and “Come away, come away, death” in Twelfth Night; “Full fathom five thy father lies” in The Tempest.

By the way, Hugh Kenner, who was my teacher at Johns Hopkins University, said in class that while visiting Warwickshire, the county where Stratford-upon-Avon is located, he heard a story that illuminated two lines, “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney sweepers, come to dust,” in the song “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” from Cymbeline. The local expressions “golden lads” and “chimney-sweepers” refer to dandelions in their two stages: as flowers in full bloom and as puff-balls that children enjoy blowing away to float through the air.

Most of us can make qualitative judgments about which song lyrics qualify as poems and which are merely verse. (If all lyrics are poems, of course, we could also distinguish between good and bad/mediocre poems.)

Here’s a prompt for some literary criticism: Select a few song lyrics that you would consider good as poems, not just serviceable words. Confining myself to folksingers who died in the 1980s, I would single out, first, “Slip of the Hand” by Dave Gordon, a blind, nearly forgotten songwriter from Dayton, Ohio, who lost his sight because of cancer at age three and died in his early thirties.

The song appeared on his album Natural Causes, which was recorded and released by the now defunct Vetco Records in Cincinnati. Luckily, it’s available on Youtube ( Here are the lyrics, which I’ve just transcribed:

Well, the High Point Police were my buddies
And Saturday evening we’d meet
While I was neglecting my studies
They’d chase me down Sycamore Street

It was kind of like going out dancing
With the whistles and lights flashing red
They must have thought I was Charles Manson
And the sirens was music instead
’Cause they beat the time on my head

If I had it all to do over again
I’d shout it from each witness stand
That the difference between the dirty and clean
Was only a slip of the hand

I guess I was seeing my share of
The laws being broken and bent
But next thing that I was aware of
Ohio was paying my rent

We held up a Seven-Eleven
The son of a banker and me
Now I’m number twelve-six-oh-seven
And he’s member FDIC
So Mister, oh say can you see

Now outside these walls are the faces
Of people whose freedom was bought
Of people with friends in high places
And others who never got caught

And they tell us that prices have risen
And most of us think that’s a crime
But here in the Lucasville prison
We’re having a hell of a time

And they tell you you gotta be strong, son
Don’t steal, don’t gamble or fight
But there’s too many strong to do nothing that’s wrong
And not enough strong to do right
Sweet Jesus, I’m lonesome tonight

And how can I shut up and how can I sleep
Knowing some of you don’t understand
That any fool kid coulda done what I did
With only a slip of the hand

So you High Point Police in your cruisers
And all of you cops on the beat
Go line up a few local losers
And chase ’em down Sycamore Street

The chorus simply repeats “Slip of the hand, slip of the hand, only a slip of the hand.” I’ve also taken liberties with some of the spelling and possible line breaks.

The other song I’d single out is “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers, a vivid and moving account of raising a sunken ship. The lyrics appear on the Genius website ( Here’s the third verse (or stanza in a poem):

All spring, now, we’ve been with her on a barge lent by a friend
Three dives a day in a hard-hat suit and twice I’ve had the bends
Thank God it’s only sixty feet and the currents here are slow
Or I’d never have the strength to go below
But we’ve patched her rents, stopped her vents, dogged hatch and porthole down
Put cables to her, fore and aft, and girded her around
Tomorrow noon, we hit the air and then take up the strain
And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

Both of these songs strike me as convincing persona poems, rich in details, with brilliant, colloquial displays of poetry in the lyrics. Neither is based on personal experience.

Another song containing a dramatic monologue now occurs to me: Joni Mitchell’s “Raised on Robbery.” After some introductory lines describing a man “sitting in the lounge of the Empire Hotel” and a “lady in lacy sleeves,” the woman recounts some of her erotic misadventures. Here’s the third verse (or stanza):

I’m a pretty good cook
I’m sitting on my groceries
Come up to my kitchen
I’ll show you my best recipe
I try and I try but I can’t save a cent
I’m up after midnight cooking
Trying to make my rent
I’m rough but I’m pleasin’
I was raised on robbery

Fans of the poetry in Joni Mitchell’s songs should look up Lesley Jenike’s “Sweet Bird,” first published in The Rumpus (November 29, 2018, While I’m especially fond of the album Blue (1971),which contains songs like “Carey” (with lines such as “My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet /And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne” and “Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will / Buy you a bottle of wine / And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down”), Lesley (another former PhD student of mine) prefers the jazzier songs in The Hissing of Summer Lawns, released four years later, which she finds “more like narrative poetry sung over experimental jazz, an underlying ‘savage servility’ [quoting Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”] sliding by on the music’s lounge-y, decadent grease.”

Taylor Swift, who may or may not be a “tortured poet,” is also a fan of Joni Mitchell’s songs, and her own album Red is apparently a response. Are her lyrics good as poems or are they merely serviceable as conveyers of emotion? As far as I know, I have never consciously heard any of her songs, so I thought it might be interesting to sample her lyrics by themselves, keeping in mind that doing so takes them out of their musical context.

My first impression is that they revel in flashes of vivid images, striking details, and pungent observations. Her song “august,” for example, begins with “Salt air, and the rust on your door.” An earlier song, “All Too Well,” includes some telling specific details, such as “left my scarf,” “in your drawer even now,” “getting lost upstate,” “Photo album on the counter,” “tee-ball team,” and “dancin’ ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light”: clues that furnish evidence for a confessional story. The song also contains a caustic and memorable observation: “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.”

Her voice (in the sense of a poem’s speaker) is certainly distinct, and one of my rules of thumb is that when the voice in a poem is compelling, the poet can get away with just about anything. It helps, actually, that she has an obsessive theme, the vicissitudes of love, since obsessions often engender powerful, deeply rooted poetry, like Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse poems. Obsessions are like power tools for poets.

The title of her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, sounds ironic, a little snarky, partly self-deprecating and partly self-promoting.

But it makes me think of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who was literally a tortured poet, arrested and imprisoned because of writing “The Stalin Epigram” (translated here by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown):

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

(For other translations, the original Russian text, and Ian Probstein’s commentary, see Charles Bernstein’s post in Jacket2:

I hope that Mandelstam is on Taylor Swift’s reading list. He was 47 years old when he perished in a Soviet transit camp near Vladivostok, the same age as Alexei Navalny.

© John Philip Drury

The Teller's Cage by John Philip DruryJohn Philip Drury is the author of five books of poetry: The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers (both from Miami University Press), The Refugee Camp (Turning Point Books), Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press), and The Teller’s Cage (Able Muse Press, 2024). He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary, both from Writer’s Digest Books. His awards include an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council grants, a Pushcart Prize, and the Bernard F. Conners Prize from The Paris Review for “Burning the Aspern Papers.”

He was born in Cambridge, Maryland, and grew up in Bethesda, raised by his mother and a former opera singer she called her cousin but secretly considered her wife. (His book about them, Bobby and Carolyn: A Memoir of My Two Mothers, will be published by Finishing Line Press in August 2024.) After dropping out of college and losing his draft deferment during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army to learn German and served undercover in the West German Refugee Camp near Nuremberg. He used benefits from the GI Bill to earn degrees from Stony Brook University, the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After teaching at the University of Cincinnati for 37 years, he is now an emeritus professor and lives with his wife, fellow poet LaWanda Walters, in a hundred-year-old house on the edge of a wooded ravine.

The Teller’s Cage: Poems and Imaginary Movies (Able Muse Press, 2024). The image is a painting by Mark Andres. The cover design is by Alexander Pepple, the editor and publisher of Able Muse Press. The book is available here:

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