A long time ago, my dad asked me if I wanted to write poetry for a living when I grew up. I responded, terribly sarcastically I’m sure, by asking what poet he could name who made a living writing poetry (there being a writing vs. teaching distinction about being a poetry professor). He said “Paul Simon.” I retorted that Paul Simon was paid to sing. But my dad was right about the poetry of his lyrics, of course.

Song lyrics to poems — horses to zebras, leopards to lions. Most fall pretty flat alone on the page without music, but not all — take for example the lyrics of Tom WaitsLeonard CohenBob Dylan, and Paul Simon. (Hmm, 3 out of those 4 are gravelly-voiced. Cause and effect?)

Tom Waits is brilliant (the Grammys are a terrible indicator of excellence; they’ve only given him two). My favorite of his songs, lyrics-wise, is “Burma Shave” from Foreign Affairs (though just the line “How do the angels get to sleep / When the devil leaves the porch light on?” from “Mr. Siegel” is a close second).

“Burma Shave” begins “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue / Scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.” What a gorgeous way to say it’s dusk. The song is a tragic narrative of a drifter who “kind of looked like Farley Granger with his hair slicked back” and a girl who wants to get out of Dodge,

She said mister anywhere you point this thing
It got to beat the hell out of the sting
Of going to bed with every dream that dies here every mornin

And so they take off, driving towards Burma Shave, a brilliant riff making geographic and real the iconic shaving cream brand that advertised using slogans on wooden signs lining the old highways and byways of the States in the early twentieth century.

As with Waits, there are a ton of lyrically-great songs to choose from in Paul Simon’s vast songbook. “Hearts and Bones” and “The Boxer” —

I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

are two of my favorites.

Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, somehow more than most, hit upon states-of-being in relationships. The beginning of “Suzanne,”

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

And then of course “Chelsea Hotel #2

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

And last but not least, Dylan. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is a nearly perfect song. (What is it about Dylan that he’s so good when covered? Is it just that other people have better voices? Tom Waits covers are rarely worth it, though Diana Krall‘s version of “Temptation” is the exception to that rule. And Springsteen covers are almost universally lame too.)

Anyhow, how’s this for a description of being in love?

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time

And how about this description of past loves:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

One other to briefly mention as well — Spearhead has a song, “Love is Da Shit,” that has not one but two extended metaphysical conceits  as good as any old John Donne poem,

ya know fallin’ in love is like easing into a hot tub.
it feels good on your feet but by the time you
get to your mid section you know you’re either
gonna get all the way in or all the way out

and my all-time favorite love lyric,

Love is the shit that makes life bloom
and you never know when you might step in it!