Kristen Hoggatt:

Shouldn’t someone at the forefront of the poetry movement try to discourage the misconception that poetry is highbrow? Poetry kicks ass, and if I were Billy Collins, I would do everything in my power to convince others that it does, using the most powerful verses to get my point across, which naturally include — come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses — song lyrics. At least I can get away with saying this: Billy Collins, you have made a grave mistake. The poetry muses should string you up and throw pointy paper quills at you.
The truth is that lyrics are often the most pervasive way to bring words to a person’s attention. Walk into a restaurant or a clothing store, and likely you will hear lyrics playing in the background. Attend a sports event and lyrics will likely be sounded from the loudspeaker during half time. This is reality — yes, it’s a far cry from hearing Keat’s odes sounded from somebody’s car audio system, but it is far more helpful to focus on the similarities between lyrics and poetry than to polarize the two genres. After all, songs and poems were at one time the same thing.
…Most important of all, both lyrics and poetry are composed of language, one of the true wonders of human development. Lyrics and poems are linked in the way all genres of the written word are, the beauty of language and artistic expression leveling disparity — both lyrics and poetry are literary arts with equal merit. Though naturally I’m biased to say that poems are superior, doing so would only harm the mission to bring poetry into the mainstream. Rather, one should focus on how song lyrics can be a gateway into poetry by making words the focal point, and as such, a person can then realize how powerful words can be by themselves.
I’m certainly one of those who was bored to tears by the way poetry was taught in school, only to discover the intoxicating power of wordsmithery via song lyrics. And while many of the lyrics that struck me as so profound when I was seventeen would make me wince these days for being so maudlin and histrionic, they nonetheless spoke to me and my then-experiences in a way that prim and proper poetry did not. Even now, as undeniably cultured and sophisticated as I am, there are still plenty of alterna-rock musicians who can provide eminently quotable couplets and quatrains which are all the more impressive for having to be tailored to fit the rhythm and melody of the song. And let’s not forget that even Homer, “the fount of Western literary eloquence”, was basically writing songs for an oral culture, or that Shakespeare was hardly above playing to the crowd himself. Some people will use words to touch and commune with others; some will use them to distance themselves and appear forbidding and unapproachable. I don’t see that the rest of the distinctions matter.
I did find it funny that she used Paul Simon’s lyrics as Exhibit A when it comes to artists who blur the line between lyrics and poems. There’s a guy named, uh, Paul Simon who would take issue with that:

The lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet then people think you’re putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.

Tee hee. Anyway, all this reminded me of something my reclusive genius co-blogger Arthur wrote in a recent email. (Yes, he really does exist. He’s not one of my multiple personalities or a literary character. He just stubbornly swears he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say when it comes to blogging, which is why I have to trick him into expounding on these things privately, so that I can reprint them here.)

“Graffiti,” like all the “graph” words (ultimately meaning “scratch,” as in clay tablets), is related to English “carve” (and “writing” itself has this primal meaning)… Surely, the place of writing is part of the meaning of a piece of writing. Ancient shamans wrote or carved or painted in out-of-the-way places so that readers–acolytes, et al.–would have to go out of their way to read them. The remoteness of the place and the effort and sometimes danger required to get there was part of the experience of the sacred. “Sacred” means “set apart”.

So while I fully agree with Hoggatt that clever lyrics can indeed be a gateway into an appreciation of the power of words and thus to the realms of officially recognized poetry, perhaps there will always have to be a different level of wordplay, one more remote and inaccessible to the lay reader, and not even purely for the snobbish reasons of wanting to distinguish oneself from the great unwashed. Quibbling over whether or not to properly classify certain lyrics as “poetry” seems a little beside the point. The highbrows will just start calling their work something else.