I have watched and enjoyed two seasons of the television drama Nashville over the last few months. Aside from the engaging soap-opera narrative, there are some great songs on the show.
As everyone knows who has watched the series, one of the rising (and then crashing) starlets is Scarlett O’Connor, a sweet young girl who came to Nashville with her then-aspiring-musician-boyfriend. She had always written poetry, and one day she and a friend start turning some of those poems into song lyrics. Song is just poetry set to music, she says ingenuously at one point—articulating a popular misconception in our culture.
It couldn’t be more wrong. As a poet of many decades and latterly a song-writer, I can say with absolute certainty that there is a vast difference between a good poem and a good song. A poetic sensibility can infuse a song and a melodic sense can animate a poem, but the practice of composition and the structural scaffolding are distinctive to each.
Good poetry is either metrically strict or lyrically cadenced. It contains its own particular “music,” but is rarely intended to be sung or played. There are exceptions, of course—like Edmund Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose,” which was set to music by Henry Lawes and others, or, say, Loreena McKennitt's setting Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" to a Celtic lilt—but such phenomena are relatively uncommon.
Good poetry exists in its own right, never uses filler, and eschews melisma [a form of embellishment that extends a single syllable across several notes]—except ironically. Songs, on the other hand, will often introduce filler words (“My baby, she done left me”) and toffee-like syllables (“oh – oh – oh”) to accommodate the beat, a poetic no-no. In song, the melodic line dominates at the expense of lexical propriety. In a poem, this is merely sloppy.
Another difference has to do with complexity. Folk music, Country and Western, Blues, and so on cannot survive when they become too intellectually intricate or verbally sophisticated. Simplicity is the key. Obviously, poetry may also work with simple themes, but intellectual convolution and initial puzzlement are its stock in trade, which may explain why it enjoys a comparatively limited audience.
Song and poetry are both viable art forms, but they rarely coalesce. A good poet is likely to be a bad song-writer, and vice versa—unless they recognize the difference between the two media and compose accordingly.
Scarlett probably never wrote a good poem; but she can write a damn good song ("Black Roses"--wow!).