Bob Dylan, albeit dramatically and reluctantly, accepted the Nobel Prize in literature this year. He received a gold medal on the back of which is the image of a young man resting under a laurel tree, listening for the inspiration of the Muse. The inscription, translated from Latin, reads: “And they who bettered life on Earth by their newly found mastery.” The immense compendium of Dylan’s lyrics have indeed greatly contributed to our lives on this Earth.
I was not so surprised at the award as the media seemed to be. I agreed with the Academy that Dylan deserved it. I was however surprised to learn he was the first songwriter laureate. Apparently, the Academy has never before thought of songs as literature.
What? I totally see songs as poetry, as literature. And lately, I’ve been exploring my lyrics as poems and crafting some poems that likely won’t become songs.
I’ve written a bunch about my songwriting process. In all my years writing songs, I’ve rarely approached the process by writing all the words first. Even less often have I authored poems, in any form, let alone poems that became lyrics. Only one of my songs, “All the Beauty We See,” was originally a poem. All my other songs were born music and lyrics together.
Lately, I’m challenging myself to write more poetically. Why?
A few reasons. First, I’ve been truly moved by poems. One of the podcasters I follow, Tara Brach, uses tons of poignant poetry in her talks. Poems used in sermons have influenced me too. I attended a meeting a few months ago, where the facilitator read her poems for reflection, a few of which went straight to my heart. Heard of Slam Nuba? Powerful words, powerfully delivered. Their tagline is “Head Cutting Poetry.”
Second, I love songs that are not so straight forward. Lyrics that set a scene, wash a canvas, pull the heart without you even knowing it’s happening. I’ve been drawn to music like that. Shout out to drummer, Amy Shelley for introducing me to Radiohead.
Third, I have been confused by poetry. In fact, I wrote this poem about that fact:
Poems Are Like Modern Art
by Melissa Monforti, 2017
Poems are like modern art.
They’re weird and I don’t understand them.
I stand under a canvas, longer than a bus,
with one, completely uneven black line stretching
from left to right, hardly centered.
Why? Why make me stretch to see the point?
A worn-out purse alights on a wooden chair splattered with bird poop.
This? Under a spotlight?
Perhaps the poop is paint.
It’s impolite to know for sure.
And now really.
A matchbox, slightly opened with Q-tips in place of matches.
When I speed away from the gallery,
I will tell the cop I was taking the road less travelled by.
I doubt it would make much difference.
In the past, when poems are obtuse and confusing, I’ve brushed them aside as pretentious. Lately, I’m more open to being stretched to see the point.
I wrote a song last month, “So Much to Carry,” which will be debuted this Sunday at Jefferson Unitarian Church. The lyrics lean more poetic than literal. What do you think?
So Much to Carry
words and music by Melissa Monforti, 2017
My father gave me the book his father gave him
It told adventures but I don’t know how it ends
My mother taught me all of the prayers I would need
I wore a locket to keep my secrets near to me
I rode the subway to catch my people uptown
I hear the music, it follows me all around
We dream of stardom, we talk of heaven and hell
We wonder where we are going ‘cause no one can tell
So much to carry
Got a poem you particularly love? Are you a poet?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!