Ryan David Orr

Poeticism isn't never not unimportant

One of the most interesting things to me about songwriting is that context changes the poeticism of words. It is easy to read a poem by Keats or Wordsworth or Angelou or Garcia Lorca or Rumi and find the words poetic because they stand alone. And as writers, we often sit with just the words, letting them simmer and age and watching the way they hit our ears and our minds. That’s how we can really decide if we are being effective, not just that we are saying something that can be understood.

But when you add music, or more pointedly, merge the words with music (I say this because many poets of the 50s and 60s were accompanied by music in performance, but were not necessarily merging the words with the music), the entire delivery comes in a package, and other considerations have to be made. So it always interests me what decisions songwriters make as to which words work within the context of their song crafting.

For example, I recently fell in love with the latest Chastity Belt record “I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone”. It’s angst-y and attitudinous (that’s a word now). It’s also very blunt in its lyricism. One moment that stands out to me as less than poetic is in the song “Complain”:

I had a drink and ate some stuff

Now I’m already bored.

A couple bros said some shit

I’m choosing to ignore.


There is nothing pretty, whimsical, timeless, or at all poetic about these words. However, the song itself is a melding of words, music, and affect that embody a lethargic, indifferent, and somewhat irritated awareness of its surroundings. Within this context, there really wouldn’t be a better way to express oneself, and any attempt at poeticism (ya know, flowery and sappy) would essentially ruin the whole thing. So the irony is that in this case, the lack of poeticism is what makes the songwriting work.

This idea brings me to a concept that I think is lost on many singer-songwriters and producers, but innately, almost accidentally grasped by the best of them: intentional presentation. What I mean by that is that every aspect of a song or a poem (or any art for that matter) is taken into consideration, not just for its shape and form, but for how it will land on the eyes and ears of the audience. It is one thing for a musician/songwriter/producer to ask themselves “Does this seem to be sonically intact and have all the right frequencies in the right places?”, but it is another thing to ask “What feeling will this combination of sounds, at this speed, with these particular words and this delivery elicit?”

The answer to the first question is in the realm of science; there is a “correct” or generally acceptable way to polish a creation and make it presentable. It is quantifiable and adjustable. It can be and is very often tailored to what a commercial market calls for, like hotel room watercolor paintings, safe and unobtrusive.

The answer to the second question is in the realm of art; a notion is given, a statement made, a question asked, a feeling elicited. The conversation either begins or continues, but never ends with this line of questioning and this answer. There is no “correct” way and it is not quantifiable. Qualifiable (also a word now) maybe, but without definition. To me, that is what makes art art: it keeps the dialogue moving.

So poeticism becomes one of those things that can make or break a work of art. The presence of or lack of it, whether good or bad, ultimately changes the work, morphing within its context and impressing upon its recipient whatever it will. So maybe that’s why there are so many good and so many bad songwriters. Maybe it’s completely intentional and some are good at it; maybe it’s a complete accident and some are good at it; maybe it’s a complete accident and everything is just chance. Maybe it’s another “beauty in the eye of the beholder” issue. Whatever it is, poeticism has always fascinated me, and played a huge role (both the presence of and lack of) in my songwriting and my appreciation of other people’s songwriting.

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