Our Books Editor, Henry Crabtree, brings you five of the best musicians turned poets, or poets turned musicians, or both at once. These masterful lyricists turned their dab hand to a sister discipline, with varying degrees of success, and some of their most achingly beautiful words are highlighted below, in no particular order.
To those with a heartfelt affinity for punk-rock, Patti Smith’s name on this list will come as no surprise. A trailblazer in the New York punk movement, Smith is lauded for a fusion of typical rock style and poetry in her work. Her best-known song, ‘Because The Night’, was co-written with Bruce Springsteen, another famous musician poet, and features the efficaciously heartening: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to lust / Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us”.
A National Book Award winner too for her memoir, Patti Smith boasts success with her words whether set to music or otherwise. In Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of the century of greatest artists, she placed 47th, and her edited edition of William Blake’s poetry comes alongside an earlier work of her own poetry. Named for one of Blake’s poems, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Smith cements her role as the so-called “punk poet laureate” with concision, especially in ‘Mummer Love’, where she writes: “it is better to write / then die”.
The late Gil Scott-Heron’s life was full of trailblazing. Born in Chicago to an opera singer and teacher mother and a father who was the first professional African-American football player in the U.S. and the first to play for Celtic here in Scotland, Scott-Heron was one of three black children selected to desegregate his school in Lincoln, Tennessee; and his later involvement with ‘The Last Poets’ a group for political dissidence with musical performance. Over his career, he used his platform as a talented writer and orator to effect social change, including campaigning with Stevie Wonder to establish the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday.
One of his most famous works of music and poetry together, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, followed in this counter-institutional vein and encouraged widespread social activism. Some of his most achingly beautiful poetry and spoken word lyrics are a siren’s call for activism: in ‘Johannesburg’, “I hate it when the blood starts flowin’ / but I’m glad to see resistance growin”. His devotional work too shows the talent and insight of musicians into poetry, an incredible capacity for lyrical flow is also shown in ‘A Very Precious Time’: “Was there a touch of spring? / Did she have a pink dress on? / And when she smiled, her shyest smile / Could you almost touch the warmth?”.
A lesser-known master of melancholic verse, Keaton Henson’s music and poetry alike brings a tear to the eye with soft, crooning tone and a complete sense of candour – nothing is hidden. A precocious talent on guitar and piano, Henson started as a visual artist, designing album covers for several bands including Enter Shikari. His frankness regarding his anxiety means that he isn’t as prolific a touring artist as many others, but if you watch any of his small sets on YouTube you’ll find a musician with a lyrical talent for songwriting and delivery not seen, in my opinion, since the heyday of the last poet musician on this list, Leonard Cohen.
Embracing several styles, Henson’s music achieved its most notable breakthrough with a feature on Zane Lowe’s Radio 1 show, followed by the DJ noting that the song, ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’, was “one of the most special pieces of music I’ve heard in a very very long time”. His poetry, like his song lyrics, tends to run in free verse; though the poet, ever self-aware, notes in his eponymous poem ‘Idiot Verse’, that “I’m aware I will not be the first to write stanzas of rhyme of my loneliness / so I’ll write it out just as I see it and just as it sounds in my heart”.
His poetry is marked by its devotion, its love and innocence, contrasted with a brooding melancholy and soulfulness, like in the line: “I’ve been smoking a lot and I’m starting to doubt / if I’m breathing you in or smoking you out”. His words, for me, are up there with the best of the Romantics, a contemporary in all but time: “There is still a word, gone un-uttered between us / Don’t say it yet darling, I’ll tell you when. / One day I’ll need it like air underwater / Save it till then will you, / Save it till then”.
From the tongue-twisting town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada came the equally linguistically-talented Joni Mitchell, whom Rolling Stone call ‘one of the greatest songwriters ever’. One of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century, Mitchell remains the sole producer credited on many of her albums and her work, including the effervescent ‘Blue’, stands on its own in the pantheon of music, no matter whether you class her music as folk, pop, jazz, rock, or any combination of the above. Her noted changes in genre as her voice and style developed echoes a comment she made as a young artist in a 1979 interview, that “Staying the same is boring. I’d rather be crucified for changing”.
Her songwriting talents are oft acclaimed for such works as ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, and ‘A Case of You’, with gorgeous romantic lyrics like: “Oh you are in my blood like holy wine / You taste so bitter / But you taste so sweet oh / I could drink a case of you, I could drink a case of you darling / Still I’d be on my feet”. With her music expressing such vivid emotion, her poetry too stands up to criticism. Her fling with Cohen too is visible in her work, and her poetry lives in her lyrics: they are one and the same. Her early song, ‘Song to a Seagull’, features the beautiful pastoral words of “Fly silly seabird / No dreams can possess you / No voices can blame you / For sun on your wings”. Her work continues to inspire men and women alike for her immense musical aptitude, lyrical talent, and perseverance after her brain aneurysm in 2015.
Possibly the most famous dual talent of poetry and lyric, Leonard Cohen is the second Canadian featured on this list after Mitchell, and just as influential. With 14 albums, copious poems, success in painting and novel-writing, Cohen was a mercurial expert in writing and guitar, whose influence will last long into the future. With early poetic influences of Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and William Butler Yeats, Cohen was always in good stead for expressive poems about love and life. His note that “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” attests to its feature as commonplace in his life amongst his music.
A folk and rock legend, his most famous musical work ‘Hallelujah’, was initially a work of longer verse, and is now among the most covered songs in history, reminding us of Leonard Cohen’s ideal that there are “many hallelujahs” to many different people. His songs evoke passion and melancholy, and the grandeur of his words are only amplified by his instantly-recognisable, iconic singing style and voice. Poems crafted, like his music, with a similar candour to Henson are further evidence of his talent: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” and “Beloved I’m yours / As I’ve always been / From marrow to pore / From longing to skin” from ‘Mission’. The late Leonard Cohen stands lofty among the heights of poets and musicians, but we’ll remember him well in the Chelsea Hotel.