The Poetry Of Rock And Roll

Dec 18, 2013

Not every rock song is poetry, but Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon argues that some are. Ross Reynolds talks with the New Yorker poetry editor and professor at Princeton about poetry, songs, his band Wayward Shrines, and his new book, "Word On The Street: Rock Lyrics."

So what rock songs have that lyrical quality that makes them poetry to the ears? Here’s Muldoon on some of his favorites.

Interview edited for clarity. This piece originally aired on February 2, 2013.

“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” by Brian Hyland

I remember vividly one trip to the seaside I took. It was in the early 60s. And I remember vividly driving people crazy with my rendition of a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Which is hardly one of the greatest songs of all time, but it’s certainly memorable, it’s catchy, and I suppose in some sense there was a delight in the lyrics.

“Bird On A Wire,” by Leonard Cohen

One of the delights for me is to hear what other talents bring to the table … I mentioned Leonard Cohen’s great song, “Bird On A Wire,” which of course one associates with a particular rendition by Leonard Cohen himself. But if one has heard Willie Nelson sing “Bird On A Wire,” one suddenly realizes how – malleable the song is, and on the other hand, how constant it is.

“Rave On John Donne,” by Van Morrison

One of the things about Van Morrison -- the best of whose work is absolutely extraordinary -- he’s written a lot of great songs. And one of things that Van Morrison understands, as do many of these great songwriters, is to really go with the profound sense they have of the capacity of music to transform. And I think Van Morrison, among others, is interested in the possibility of ecstasy, of almost some kind of spiritual experience through music.

“The River,” by Bruce Springsteen

I’m struck just listening to it again, the amount of ground that he covers in those first three or four lines in terms of setting the scene, establishing a couple of characters and their relationship to the landscape -- it is absolutely brilliant. I mean, he’s very concise, really able to paint a picture in a way that many conventional poets, or poets who are thought of as being more serious, might find difficult.

“Otherside,” by Macklemore

After his on-air interview, we wanted to hear Paul Muldoon’s take on Seattle rapper Macklemore, so we played "Otherside (Remix)" for him.

I thought it was very clever and actually quite moving in its way. The energy of it is fabulous, the rhyming is fantastic and the attack in it is great. But one thing about this song is that it kind of runs the risk of standing on a soapbox. I think it’s very difficult to take a platform in a song, to make a point, and I wonder about that with a poem too. But my resistance to moralizing probably has something to do with my being brought up by Roman Catholic. I just resist it. I don’t want anyone telling me the truth.