No, this is not a post about whether rock lyrics can be poetry. That question's already been answered. Convincingly. By the folks over at Minstrels. If you don't believe that rock lyrics can be poetry, I refer you to the works of M/s Simon, Dylan, Mitchell, Cohen and Knopfler as collected on their site. (see, in particular Thomas's commentary to Tambourine Man) There are other artists who've written songs that deserve the title of poetry, but that should do for now.
Nor is this a post about songs that actively reference poetry. Like S&G's Richard Cory . Like Joni Mitchell's Slouching toward Bethlehem. Like the Cranberries singing Yeats' Grave (with its rendition of 'No Second Troy' in Dolores O'Riordan's hypnotic voice). Like Joan Baez quoting Neruda on No Nos Moveran. 
No. This is a post about something different. This is a post about songs that have somehow, over the years, come to remind me of particular pieces of writing. Not because the songwriters necessarily saw the connection or were trying to make the link. Not because I happened to be listening to the song and reading the piece at the same time. But because some obscure connection in my head got triggered by the song that made me think of a poem, or a play, or a book. It might have been a turn of phrase. Or the general tone of the song. Or something else entirely. At any rate, every time I listen to this song now, I can't do it without thinking about the piece of writing again. And vice versa. (does this happen to other people, by the way? or is it just me?):
1) Jethro Tull: Broadsword [William Blake: Jerusalem]
Let's start with something simple. Is it possible to hear Jethro Tull singing Broadsword and not think of the lines from Blake: "Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!"?  Personally, I've never been able to hear the song go "Bring me my broadsword / and clear understanding / Bring me my cross of gold / As a talisman" without making the connection.
2) Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole (William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure)
To begin with, let me say that I think Gallows Pole is one of Zeppelin's most underrated songs. I love the way it starts off being so slow and plainitive, and then just grows and grows in tempo until it ends up being an explosion of frenzy. And the screaming desperation in Plant's voice is so apt.
What Gallows Pole always reminds me of, for some obscure reason, is Measure for Measure. I think it's the whole "Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand / Take him to shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man" bit, with its echoes of "Sweet sister, let me live:/What sin you do to save a brother's life, /Nature dispenses with the deed so far/That it becomes a virtue". Not of course, that Gallows Pole is the only song to deal with that scenario - Dylan does something similar on Seven Curses, though this time it's a daughter, not a sister who's involved. But I've always felt that the Zeppelin song, with all its talk of gold and soul and bowers has a much more medieval, mystic feel.
3. The Doors: The End (T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men)
Okay, here there actually is a connection. Remember Apocalypse Now? Remember that starting scene where he plays The End? Well, of course, Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Which is where Eliot got the "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" line with which he starts Hollow Men. See. Small world.
More generally, though, that entire "lost in a roman wilderness of pain" bit in the song always conjures up in my head a landscape that comes straight out of Eliot.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
This hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.
4) Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair (Christopher Marlowe: The Passionate Sheperd to his Love)
It's the motif of clothes made out of plants mostly (and more generally, the idea of doing all these impossible things for your love). But it's also the tone of the song, the way both song and poem cycle back to that one line, the way "Come live with me and be my love" is echoed in "She once was a true love of mine". In fact, I have to say that I actually like the S&G song a lot better than I like the original Marlowe poem - but then, I've never managed to be enthusiastic about Marlowe anyway.
5) Tracy Chapman: The Promise (John Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)
Every time I listen to Tracy Chapman's The Promise, I find the last four stanzas of Donne's poem playing over and over in my head. This is not because the lyrics to Chapman's song are particularly brilliant. It's more, I suspect, because of her voice, because of the depth of feeling that she manages to put into it, elevating the song into realms of emotion that Donne inhabits. What is, in Donne, a consoling conviction becomes, in Chapman's song, a dream of the future that the singer has no real faith in. The effect is devastating.
I could go on and on. There's Dylan's Tangled up in Blue, that always makes me think of Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. There's R.E.M's Falls to Climb, that always makes me think of Lermontov and Chekhov's Seagull. There's Suzanne Vega's The Queen and the Soldier, which reminds me of Tennyson generally, though I can't say why or what poem exactly (Maud perhaps?) .
The point is that people who ask whether rock lyrics are poetry are looking at it the wrong way. It's not the lyrics alone that make good rock poetic. It's the combination of the the words and the sound, the whole not the parts, that make rock, at its best, as moving a form of expression as good literature. Just as it's not the words to Dove sono or Pace pace mio dolce tesoro or Vissi d'arte that make those songs so moving. R.P.Blackmur famously said that poets are looking to add to "the stock of available reality". Great rock music, I think, just does that, fundamentally enhancing how we imagine ourselves and the world around us.
 Which, just in case you haven't figured this out yet, is based on Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem.
 Not to mention Zeppelin's infatuation with Tolkien.
 The Minstrels version I've linked to has a discussion about a rock version of Blake's poem as well.
Categories: Music, Poetry