Theft or Flattery? When Musicians Borrow from Poetry

Theft or Flattery? When Musicians Borrow from Poetry
Photo by Nils Geylen

Photo by Nils Geylen

Poems On the Waves

“I carry your heart here with me / I carry it in my heart / I carry your heart with me / I carry it in my heart”

Sound familiar? e.e. cummings’s most famous poem i carry you in my heart (i carry it in)? It’s Ion Square by Bloc Party. Literature is at its most successful when it can have a conversation with other art forms. Literature is turning musical, and I don’t mean Les Mis.

Singer Dido, who in March released her fourth studio album is no stranger to this practice. There are two ways to “read” her electro-pop tune Blackbird:

Another story about a man leaving a woman:

Dido's album "The Girl Who Got Away"

Dido’s album “The Girl Who Got Away”

“He put the coffee in the cup and with milk he filled it up / He added sugar and I never knew he liked it like that / He took his coat from the hook and his scarf and his hat / […] And he walked down the hall and he opened the door.” Dido, Blackbird

Or a smart steal/homage to a poem. Coincidence?  Blackbird reproduces the same end-of-the-affair scenario (over morning coffee) as French poet’s Jacques Prévert’s Breakfast (1945):

“He poured the coffee / Into the cup / He poured the milk / Into the cup of coffee / He added the sugar / To the coffee and milk / He stirred it / With a teaspoon / […] He got up / He put his hat / On his head / He put on / His raincoat […] He went out / Into the rain / Without a word / Without looking at me.” Jacques Prévert, Breakfast

Literature feeding into song lyrics is nothing new, though you might be surprised at some of the veteran culprits: Iron Maiden (at least 14 songs – taking inspiration from Huxley to Golding, via Poe), Metallica, (three songs – including H. P. Lovecraft) and David Bowie (numerous songs inspired by Orwell). Not forgetting Kate Bush’s first breakthrough song: Wuthering Heights. But the influence of poetry, more specifically, is less documented and therefore often more difficult to trace.

Poetic influences

JacquesPrevert

Jacques Prévert

Dido’s track sounded familiar on first listening but I sent it to friends who are perhaps less one-track minded when it comes to Prévert and coffee. The answer to my question “ring any bells?” was along the lines of: “that poem about breakfast”. Unfortunately, the man himself, Prévert, who died in 1977, was not on hand to comment on whether he felt affronted by the similarity between his poem and Dido’s lyrics, nor whether he deserved a credit on her CD. Instead, I contacted Dido’s management team and was assured my question would be passed on. A couple of months later, I am yet to receive an answer. Where there is ambivalence about influences, the kindest reason could be that the influences in question are subconscious.  So, Dido – busy or secretive? At any rate she keeps us (me) guessing. The way I see it: young musical bookworm Dido didn’t turn up her nose at poetry, and/or caught Marlene Dietrich’s song version of Prévert’s poem on the radio waves – what else to do when you grow up without a TV?

Lazy lyricists

At one end of the spectrum there are those singers who are extremely protective of their sources – wouldn’t reveal them under torture. In the grey area are those who acknowledge poetic influence, if somewhat confused about their own artistic process. Mick Jagger is one example: former girlfriend Marianne Faithful bought him a Baudelaire collection, which he cited as inspiration for Sympathy for the Devil, but later admitted he wasn’t sure whether it was Baudelaire or in fact The Master and Margarita by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov – or perhaps both. And then there are those singers who take such an open approach to poetic recycling that the word isn’t “influence” any more, but “collaboration” (if you ignore the minor fact that the poetic half of the collaboration is most likely dead).

For instance, in 2007, songstress Joni Mitchell chose to sing Rudyard Kipling’s If, and after 19 studio albums, who can blame her for wanting to take a break from lyric-writing? Not that anyone could accuse her of not doing her bit to bring the dead poet in line with the times –  universalising his final verse “And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” into the more feministically accurate: “But more than that / I know that / You’ll be all right”.

And when Rufus Wainwright couldn’t be bothered to do the writing part of his singer/composer job, he stuck a bit of music onto three Shakespeare sonnets (10, 20 and 43) on his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. He had obviously been pleased with the results of his earlier pilfering of a Shakespeare sonnet 29 on When Love Speaks (2002) – a compilation on which the likes of Des’ree and Annie Lennox (The Passionate Shepherd To His Love) similarly decided to stick with the great bard’s sonnets, rather than their own lyrics.

Does Emily Dickinson's poetry make a good lyric because she wrote to music?

Does Emily Dickinson’s poetry make a good lyric because she wrote to music?

This confirms the trend of musicians favouring poets who are dead, with W.B. Yeats, Keats and Emily Dickinson – critics suggest that her poetry works so well with music because she herself composed music – in the top three. A top three favoured by no less than France’s former première dame, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who declined on her second album No Promises (2007) to pen any of the lyrics, preferring instead to channel three Emily Dickinson poems (I Felt My Life With Both My Hands, If You Were Coming In The Fall and I Went To Heaven); two W.B. Yeats poems (Those Dancing Days Are Gone, Before the World Was Made); two W.H. Auden poems (Lady Weeping at the Crossroads and At Last the Secret Is Out) and a Christina Rossetti poem (Promises Like Pie-Crust), as well as Walter de la Mare and Dorothy Parker. Though she is now released from her flat-pumps-required political duties, I did not have to disturb Bruni (now busy promoting studio album number three) as Female First had got there, well, first. Her heart set on making an album in English, Carla confessed to Female First a truth which has been earning translators their keep for centuries – it doesn’t flow so well when it’s not your mother tongue: “in English I always found myself with a third of the song missing. So I bought some books of poetry to inspire me. […] My lyrics couldn’t compete […] so I wondered whether the poems could be the lyrics.”

So there you have it. Want to be a lyricist but short on ideas? Follow Carla’s recipe: pick a dead poet, add a dollop of music, and package it into a shiny new CD.

Singer cashing in on poets’ intellectual property

But does the noise bother the poets? As we’ve seen, they mostly hail from the Dead Poets Society so it’s unlikely that the noise gets to them, and the shortcut answer as to why they are still talking through the mouths of singers is that the copyright to their poems has fallen into the public domain. Since the poets weren’t around to defend their interests, I channelled their thoughts on poetic recycling through Carla. If she’s to be believed, the ghosts do tend to knock about – “Sometimes, when I was writing,” Carla told Female First, “I felt as if I had Emily Dickinson or WH Auden or any other of these masters standing right beside me” – ultimately, dead poets are a sound choice, with artists quite safe from the judgement of their elders: “Yeats and the other poets on my new album are all six feet under so I don’t know whether they’d have liked what I’ve done with their poems or not.”

Charles Trénet, still smiling after Carla Bruni's homage?

Charles Trénet, still smiling after Carla Bruni’s homage?

After chumming up with the poets, Carla’s latest effort – released in April, Little French Songs is a homage to la chanson française – Bruni keeps it in the family this time, citing French singers as influences. And with the singers she selected (Charles Trenet, Boby Lapointe, Léo Ferré, Jean Ferrat and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel) also conveniently dead, we’ll never know what they think about this. So while she dropped the language of Shakespeare and the poets who wrote in it, Carla remains consistent with her previous offering in that all her influences are dead. If she’s said it once, she’ll say it twice: dead is best – just package it into a shiny new CD, or two.

But while the poets (and singers) may stay mum, there is one group who can’t be silenced: the critics. Where Bruni is concerned, they found her melodies wanting in terms of a connection with the poems. But Bruni is not the only one they hounded, and when it comes to poetic recycling, the critics tend to favour the word “plagiarism”.

Plagiarism or upcycling?

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before sing The Smiths, quite fittingly, as their oeuvre rings more than a few literary bells. When he was accused of plagiarism by critics, it was from the dead poets that Morrissey sought legal counsel. The conflict between the critic bad-mouthing The Smiths for plagiarism was played out in their retaliatory song Cemetry Gates (1986). In the song, the critic accuses the Smiths: You say: “ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn”. Though the critic in The Smiths’ song gets his Richard III a little jumbled, he is relentless:And you claim these words as your own / But I’ve read well, and I’ve heard them said / A hundred times, maybe less, maybe more / If you must write prose and poems / The words you use should be your own / Don’t plagiarise or take on loan.”” 

The Smiths, "Louder Than Bombs", 1987

The Smiths, “Louder Than Bombs”, 1987

Considering lifting a few things from poets? Heed The Smiths’ advice: “There’s always someone, somewhere / With a big nose, who knows / And who trips you up and laughs / When you fall”. The Smiths learned their lesson: not wanting to leave the critics with bones to pick with them for their Cemetry Gates dedication, they stuck a big picture of Morrissey’s favourite author Shelagh Delaney on the cover of Louder than Bombs [1987]. And they made no secret of having borrowed the title for the album from Elizabeth Smart’s long prose poem, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Though The Smiths’ critic trips them up and laughs in Cemetry Gates, it is Morrissey who has the last laugh in the song: And I meet you at the cemetery gates / Keats and Yeats are on your side / But you lose because Wilde is on mine”. Cemetry Gates answers the question/accusation “is imitation the sincerest form of flattery or daylight pilfering?” with an implicit reference to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism: “Talent borrows, genius steals.” And in case the reference was too subtle for the ridiculed critic, The Smiths also etched Wilde’s words in the vinyl run-out grooves of a single from The Queen is Dead (1986). The fans followed suit, printing the quote on Smiths’ bootlegs.

So, in the words of Wilde, The Smiths, and fans of either or both, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of poetic recycling, as long as it’s done with talent (or was that genius?)

Shout-outs to poets

Maude Gonne, but not forgotten?

Maude Gonne, but not forgotten?

Well, said The Cranberries, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993). Keeping it Irish, they got around to “doing it” it on their album No Need To Argue (1994) with the song Yeats’ Grave. In it, the band’s frontwoman and lyricist Dolores O’Riordan sings the story of the poet’s unrequited love for Maud Gonne (whom he proposed to four times between 1891 and 1901, and a fifth time in 1916, perhaps as an obligatory – and belated – thank you for the fact that, in 1908, she had finally allowed him to consummate their relationship just once, thus fuelling more lovelorn poems). So Yeats has The Cranberries to thank for at least 17 million fans being privy to his humiliation. The Cranberries were, however, kind enough to leave out the fact that – nothing if not persistent – Yeats eventually proposed to Gonne’s 21-year-old daughter, who took after her mother in her fondness for the Irish word “nil” (that’s “no”, to you).

Singers turning poetry into A Bad Dream

Keane also dipped their pen into the ink of the Anglo-Irish conflict for inspiration, turning Keats’ poem An Irishman Foresees His Death into the song A Bad Dream. Here is Keane: “I’ll die in the clouds above / and you that I defend, I do not love” as compared to Keats:  “I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / […] Those that I guard I do not love;”. However, Keats’ poem was written in the context of the Irish fight for independence (while Irish soldiers were fighting for England): the poem has political resonance. Something which, according to US poet William Carlos Williams is rather unusual: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems”. So when poetic licence leads Keane to summarise Keats’s stanza : “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public man, nor cheering crowds, / A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds;” thus: “Baby I’m a man, I was born to hate”, it begs the question: can adapting a poem into song make it more current? Going on the strength – or lack thereof – of Keane’s lyrics alone, it would seem that current news has very little to offer in terms of conflict these days. While Keats and Keane do share three letters of their name, it is perhaps debatable that they share anything more, namely a vision.

Pounds for poets

We tend to fondly imagine the poor poet slaving away without crass pecuniary matters ever being part of the equation – art for the sake of art and all that. Yet the poet Ezra Pound wasn’t one to sneer at, well, pounds for his efforts. In fact, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote to  Pound in 1917 complaining that “It’s hell when poets can’t afford to buy each other’s books” to which his friend replied: “Half of the people who care, only borrow.”

Sheryl Crow, "Tuesday Night Music Club", 1993

Sheryl Crow, “Tuesday Night Music Club”, 1993

Perhaps Pound hadn’t envisioned the musicians’ brand of borrowing, which can be a lucrative business for all involved when the poet whose work is being recycled is still around to hear it. To wit, Sheryl Crow’s first hit All I Wanna Do (1993) is still earning royalties for the – formerly struggling – poet Wyn Cooper. Cooper was so thrilled he nearly authorised use of that first poem for free, going on to collaborate with the band on close to ten more songs. So live poets can break into the music business too. Moreover, song does not merely take from poetry but also gives back. Indeed, when Crow bought the poem there were only 500 copies of Cooper’s collection in print but Cooper has since been in a position to take on writing full-time – poetry and lyrics – adapting poems into lyrics. And Esquire reports that he has done so successfully, writing that while “We tend to be sceptical of […] anyone who parlays success at one art form into a stab at another”, Cooper proves the notion wrong. Cooper makes a case for the idea that the relationship between poetry and music, when acknowledged, is a mutually beneficial two-way street. Hurrah. We always knew they could get along just fine.

Music inspiring the bards

Lyricists have recycled poems and some – including, in 1966, Simon & Garfunkel in A Poem on the Underground Wall – have even made poems the subject of their lyrics, and the dialogue is well and truly open between the two arts with poetry finding inspiration in music, also.

On one level those who move from music to poetry tell us that the former informs their practice of the latter; Irish poet Paul Muldoon told the Guardian: “When I first wrote librettos, that influenced the way I wrote poems. Songwriters have very particular skills. […] I’m interested in what I might learn from this and be able to bring back into the poetry business.”

"The Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns' Music"

“The Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns’ Music”

And on a more concrete level, music is sometimes quite literally the inspiration for poetry. Take The Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns’ Music (Candlewick, 2006). The Poems on the Underground team asked 13 contemporary poets to respond to Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals by writing a poem for each animal from what is known as the classical French composer’s zoological fantasy. The result is a three-way artistic correspondence: with Saint-Saëns’ music, the 14 poems it inspired, as well as illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura (an artist described as having a “gift for illustrating poetry”). The poems themselves nod to the correspondences between music and poetry with poet Charles Causley describing the swan as “a music of the eye”, while with Gerard Benson (one third of the Poems on the Underground editorial team) Fossils become dinosaur skeletons playing clarinets and cellos.

The relationship between music and poetry is reciprocal, or to use a title from one of Baudelaire’s most famous poems, there is a “correspondence”, one beautifully illustrated in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem To Music: Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps: / silence of paintings / You language where all language / ends. You time / standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.”

Music giving poetry a new lease of life

Does poetry love music more or does music love poetry more? Who gets more out of it? Is one more vulnerable and should we protect it? It’s an easy guess what poetry purists would have to say about that. But all is fair in love and war and a poem successfully adapted into a song should be seen as a celebration of poetry – the sort of homage which can prove to be a very good vehicle for the dissemination of poetry. Bluntly put, poets and lyricists borrowing from each other is one more way of keeping poetry out of that fated Cemetry.

Because there are those who wonder whether poetry has one foot in the grave already. Namely, Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri who asked in her column: “Is Poetry dead?” Having incurred the wrath of live poets, Petri was forced to eventually report in a subsequent column that “’Poetry is not dead,’ says poetry”. Notwithstanding, in a short film Vanessa Place claims that “Poetry Is Dead: I Killed It” – echoing the words of humorist and author Don Marquis: “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo”.

Photo by Xanetia

Photo by Xanetia

So shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that poetry is rock ‘n’ rolling, popping and finding new ways to re-emerge? After all, my favourite poet Prévert surely enjoyed his first ride on the British Underground in 2009 (when his tiny and beautiful poem Alicante was featured on Poems on the Underground posters) and in 2013 he went on to ride radio waves around the world – newly outfitted by Dido. That new guise is directly responsible for my nostalgic decision to source a first edition of my favourite collection of his, so there’s circularity there. Similarly, if Bloc Party has anything to do with it, my 16-year-old brother will soon be quoting cummings to impress a date. Perhaps a cummings collection isn’t such a quaint present for a teenager after all. And if poetry doesn’t get through to him that way, Twitter might be the one to get him – with Guardian Books’ Twitter poetry (the new haiku?) contest: “I do declare, in poetry court, / my favourite poems are sweet and short.#tweetpoem”. Poetry is nothing if not a many-headed beast and songs are just one aspect of the ways that poetry mutates to survive – in fact, I wonder what filter I should use to Instagram that Prévert poem poster? 

Clémence Sebag is roamer, she started out as a West Londoner, worked her way up North, then ventured down South until all that was left was East. She tried Rio and Buenos Aires but couldn't get used to the weather. By day she works as a literary translator, by night she writes book reports for a literary scout. She wants to be a writer when she grows up and everybody knows Paris is where writers live. Fall-back career: literary groupie. She Blames Bridget Jones for not having gotten around to penning the 10th draft of her 31st novel. Meanwhile, you can find some flash fiction from her Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA here. She also dabbles in poetry and you can find her in the anthology The Dance Is New. Best place to find her: Café de Flore. If Paris is too far, Tweet her @clefranglaise or follow her blog.

43 comments

    • Thanks for leaving a comment Mélodie and thanks @grumpymatt @blasj @lalalooms @00nightingale00 @richardevans1 @elizabethmoya and my brother @gaspardsebag for the reTweets :) And thank you for reading me!

  1. caroline says:

    Very interesting article, I was unaware about most of these lyrics being ‘inspired’ by poetry, thank you for enlightening us Ms Sebag:)

  2. Benjamin says:

    And I’d only been wondering just the other day where I had heard the lyrics to Blackbird previously! Very interesting…

    And a very nicely written article too may I say, bravo.

  3. Jessica Smith says:

    Very interesting article. Cross-pollination of art forms can be exciting, and words and music are wonderfully symbiotic…Setting someone else’s words to music, however, should be acknowledged as just that. Also interesting that critics ‘found Bruni’s melodies wanting in connection with the poems’, since poetry doesn’t always work as music – song lyrics often need to be simpler, and need to work together with the music, as opposed to just being a poem with some chords tacked on…From, A. Musician!

  4. Ali Hines says:

    Who knew about Sheryl Crow and The Smiths?! Very cool article on art influencing art – may inspire me to dust off that copy of Byron… : )

  5. Domenico Desiderio Pinto says:

    I learned English with The Smiths! It is always good to read articles about them. I do not read a lot of poetry, so it is nice to know I have been reading some without knowing.

  6. Auny says:

    Then why should we pay a lot to listen to music ? Poetry is widely available to all and people are working really hard to make it accessible to everyone for almost nothing?…..

  7. Eugenia says:

    “Poetry is nothing if not a many-headed beast and songs are just one aspect of the ways that poetry mutates to survive” — beautiful. I loved this fascinating rumination on a wonderful topic.

  8. barukh says:

    so, poetry is not dead ? thanks for this living and rock’n’ rolling paper, it helps to keep in mind the fluctuating nature of poetry, which knows no boundaries!

  9. Seamus says:

    Very interesting article (and impressively researched). As a songwriter/lyricist with quite a large ego I would’nt consider borrowing from poetry as I think it’s my job to express what I’m trying to get across in my way – that’s the whole point. I’m not a big poetry fan so excluding shakespeare, whose words are all over the English language (and impossible NOT to plagiarise accidentally) it’s something that I can’t imagine doing subconciously. But I have lifted the odd melody from a classic song completely unawares and later been told “that’s the main tune from the Muppets Show theme!” so I accept that it could happen that way. But plagiarism is just plain lazy and quite base! My personal take on it is to thine own self be true man.

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