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Songwriters Who Are Poets: 20 Musicians Whose Lyrics Are High Art
List & Guides

Songwriters Who Are Poets: 20 Musicians Whose Lyrics Are High Art

As these songwriters who are poets have shown, lyrics can stand apart from music to be recognised as creative works in their own right.

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Poetry is nothing if not personal. “I think that poets and songwriters have a lot in common because a songwriter really has to be a poet first,” Stevie Nicks said in 2016, noting that many musicians’ lyrics can be considered poetry, too. “That’s how we live our lives,” the Fleetwood Mac icon continued. “It’s the same kind of thinking… we put our stories into these small little containers filled with mostly short lines and verses. This is how we talk about the way we feel and talk about things and explain the world and ourselves.” As this list of songwriters who are poets reveals, many musical artists feel the same way about their work.

Yet though Nicks embraces the label “poet” and sees harmonies with her lyrics, with her poems often turning into songs later down the road, for UK singer-songwriter and poet PJ Harvey there is clear blue water between the two forms of expression. “There is a huge difference between composing lyrics and writing poetry,” she said in 2022. “Poetry needs to create an entire world on the page without musical accompaniment, through form, rhyme, metre and tone. A song lyric can be a very light brushstroke because the music is supplying emotion and atmosphere, and helps the lyric come across.” Furthermore, some musicians dislike the label entirely, even when they are actually writing poetry; Joni Mitchell has said, “I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic.”

Poetry can be used to educate; to enlighten; to make us grip ourselves tightly or expand our worldview. It can be everything. As Leonard Cohen once said, “Poetry is just evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Here we celebrate that breed of songwriters who are poets – artists who have kept both ends of the creative candle burning.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out the songwriters who are poets, below.

20: Lana Del Rey (1985- )

From her earliest songs, Lana Del Rey has openly acknowledged the influence of poetry on her work; she even reads from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in her 2013 short film, Tropico. Officially entering the ranks of songwriters who are poets, she authored her own collection of poetry, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, in 2020. Del Rey first planned to self-publish, self-distribute to small bookshops and price the volume at $1, “because my thoughts are priceless”; however, this plan didn’t materialise, and the collection became available to bookshelves everywhere in the conventional fashion. “The poems come to me fully formed,” she said in 2020, honestly reflecting on how the format brought her insecurity as well as expression. “Having to stop and channel a 12-minute poem with its rhymes intact, it’s like, ‘Huh, OK, I don’t know if it’s good.’”

Must hear: Salamander, from Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass

19: Nick Cave (1957- )

“I try to read, at the very least, a half-hour of poetry a day, before I begin to do my own writing,” Nick Cave told his fan forum, Red Right Hand Files. “It jimmies open the imagination, making the mind more receptive to metaphor and abstraction and serves as a bridge from the reasoned mind to a stranger state of alertness, in case that precious idea decides to drop by.” Unsurprising, given poetry’s importance to Cave, he has also published his own collections. Most notable is 2015’s The Sick Bag Song, an epic poem scrawled on various airline sickbags during the frequent flights taken as part of his 2014 North American tour. The sickbags themselves were also reproduced in the collection, showcasing a very underrated facet of Cave’s art: his humour.

Must hear: The Sick Bag Song: Portland

18: T-Boz (1970- )

“When TLC was between albums, I had no way to release my creativity,” Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins wrote when introducing her 1999 poetry book, Thoughts. “Sharing these stories and poems has helped me face big issues in my life.” The first poem T-Boz wrote for Thoughts was Unpretty, which, in its song form, turned into a huge TLC hit. In her poetry, T-Boz tackles issues such as body image, self-doubt, loss and growing to love yourself. She also writes lengthier essays within the book, reflecting on issues such as her diagnosis of sickle cell anaemia (Monster In My Veins) and the early days of TLC. “I’ve never been into poetry,” she writes in the preface, “but these pieces were from my heart and they were my art.”

Must hear: Unpretty

17: Stevie Nicks (1948- )

“I go home from every tour with a binder full of journalistic prose of the tour, and then also a lot of poetry,” Stevie Nicks said in 1991. “They don’t know that I’m writing this every night, I don’t show them until the end of the tour. Then I have it bound into a little book, and I give it to everybody.” Nicks’ poetry is an important part of her artistic expression – and has been increasingly so in recent years. Very much waving the banner for songwriters who are poets, Nicks often wrote poetry that found later expression in Fleetwood Mac or solo song lyrics; in the past few years, however, she has written poetry as an end in itself – for instance, her poem written in tribute to Foo Fighters’ late drummer, Taylor Hawkins, and her political poem Get It Back, which encouraged voting in the 2022 midterm elections.

Must hear: Edge Of Seventeen

16: Daniel Johnston (1961-2019)

One of the great outsider musicians, Daniel Johnston first gained attention in the early 80s, when he worked in McDonald’s and began handing out tapes of his music. His cassettes – self-recorded, lo-fi, unbelievably creative on limited means – has been dubbed “basement poetry”. Through his cassettes and, later, his records on labels including Shimmy Disc, Atlantic and Seminal Twang, he created a mythos populated with recurring characters: King Kong, a boxer called Joe, Casper The Friendly Ghost and Laurie, his romantic obsession. Johnston lived with serious mental-health issues, documented in the film The Devil And Daniel Johnston, and increasingly was beset by physical health problems, too. He passed away in 2019, leaving the world his matchless folk poetry.

Must hear: Life In Vain

15: Molly Drake (1915-1993)

For decades, Molly Drake’s beautiful music and poetry was, in one sense, completely unknown. Yet, in another sense, its influence was known to millions through the lyrics and songs of her son, Nick Drake. In 2007 the posthumous Nick Drake compilation Family Tree was released, containing two of his mother’s works; subsequently, Molly Drake has been completely rediscovered on her own terms. Her soft, piano-led music accompanying her poetry was recorded by her husband sometime in the 50s, on a basic home set-up. Her work is melancholy and occasionally despairing, with flashes of beauty and hope within; Joe Boyd, Nick Drake’s producer, has called Molly “the missing link in the Nick Drake story”.

Must hear: Little Weaver Bird

14: John Lennon (1940-1980)

Paul McCartney wrote the introduction to John Lennon’s 1964 book of nonsense poetry, In His Own Write. “None of it has to make sense,” McCartney wrote, “and if it seems funny then that’s enough.” One those songwriters who wrote poetry for amusement, as well as artistic expression, Lennon’s whimsical early works draw from Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Spike Milligan, while also channelling surrealism and the proto-psychedelia that was to characterise The Beatles’ later songs. In His Own Write was followed in 1965 by A Spaniard In The Works and, finally, the posthumous collection Skywriting By Word Of Mouth.

Must hear: The Wrestling Dog

13: Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

Included alongside family photographs, handwritten lyrics and stories in the book Tupac Shakur Legacy (by family friend Jamal Joseph), Tupac Shakur’s poetry was first published posthumously in 2006. It now forms an indelible part of his oeuvre. Shakur was of fierce intellect, having studied theatre, literature and music at the Baltimore School For The Arts, and he saw poetry in particular as an essential part of his growth as a rapper. “[Rap] is poetry, to me,” he said in 1995. “It is my opinion that I started to rap when I was writing poetry. Storytelling, poetry… even iambic pentameter is rap. It’s the way you write it, the structure.” Like the subject matter of his music, Shakur’s poetry is hard to pin down, taking in wide social and political issues alongside piercing words of love’s emotional daggers.

Must hear: Jamal Joseph remembers the poetry of Tupac Shakur

12: Yoko Ono (1933- )

In Grapefruit, Yoko Ono’s 1964 “book of instructions and drawings”, there is a piece entitled A poem to be read with a magnifying glass. What follows is a collection of what looks like squiggles but which, if you do as Ono suggests, does indeed gain its own poetry of space, dimension, weight and rhythm, even though there are no words. Ono’s work is known for being hopeful and optimistic, such as her all-white chess set, which drains the combat from the game, and Ceiling Painting, which involved climbing a ladder to read one word: “YES”. Bending the lines between poetry and visual art, Grapefruit is a treasure from one of the more multi-disciplinary songwriters who are poets, and it stands as a testament to Ono’s enormous creative gift.

Must hear: Yoko Ono reading from Grapefruit

11: Joni Mitchell (1943- )

“I didn’t like poetry,” Joni Mitchell said, with characteristic bluntness, in 2005. “When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, ‘You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it’? They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, ‘Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.’” Despite her exalted status among these songwriters who are poets, Mitchell finds poetry egocentric, venal, pretentious… yet she has published her own collections of poems, in 1997 (The Complete Poems And Lyrics) and in 2019 (Morning Glory On The Vine, a reproduction of a 1971 verse, lyrics and artwork collection given to friends). Mitchell had written poetry since her teens and, whether she likes it or not, it is an inescapable part of her body of work.

Must hear: Conversation

10: Ivor Cutler (1923-2006)

Silly, eccentric, unconventional, playful and just plain jubilant, Ivor Cutler’s work is absolutely irresistible. This Scottish poet and musician appealed to a wide variety of people over his many years as a radio personality. He first gained popularity in the late 50s, appearing on the BBC Home Service – but it was his numerous appearances on John Peel’s show, beginning in 1969, which introduced him to a much younger generation. “Thanks to Peel, I gained a whole new audience, to the amazement of my older fans, who find themselves among 16-to-35s in theatres, and wonder where they came from,” Cutler said in 1993.

Must hear: Shoplifters

9: PJ Harvey (1969- )

PJ Harvey’s 2022 book of narrative poetry, Orlam, took eight years to emerge. During that time, she said, she took the myth and folklore of Dorset that makes up Orlam’s world as “a parallel universe. Every moment of my day, it was running alongside me. I was so involved in the journey it was taking me on that everything I did, everything I saw, was tinged with this other world I’d entered.” Written in the Dorset dialect, Orlam is centred on the nine-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles, growing up in Dorset, as Harvey herself did, with its secrets, violence and bliss. “When I’ve read the ending of a great poem, I catch my breath,” she has said. “In my own poems, I don’t want to tell people what to feel. I want to open the doorway so they can find out for themselves.”

Must hear: Orlam extract, read by PJ Harvey

8: Jim Morrison (1943-1971)

The Doors’ very name came from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Jim Morrison, though forever associated with the strutting rock-god image of the best frontmen, always considered himself a poet first and wanted to be remembered as such. His work vacillated between the surrealist and the profane, and yet all held threads within it of freedom, exploration and latent power waiting to be unleashed. He self-published books of poetry in his lifetime and, after his death, the surviving members of The Doors used Morrison’s spoken-word renditions of his poems to create the album An American Prayer.

Must hear: An American Prayer

7: Nikki Giovanni (1943- )

Called “the poet of the Black Revolution”, Nikki Giovanni has created a body of work which vibrantly expresses identity, struggle, pride and spirituality. She writes at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood, and prides herself on making her words understood and shared, rather than obscured. “I think I had the values of integrity in the work,” Giovanni has said. “I’m perfectly willing to take the work just about anywhere. I’ve read for just about all groups and places because I figure the work is the work and you have to get the work around.” One track in particular, 1971’s Ego Tripping, which celebrates strong Black womanhood, is considered an important precursor to rap and was included on the 2009 compilation Fly Girls!, which documented female hip-hop.

Must hear: Ego Tripping

6: Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952- )

Linton Kwesi Johnson is the father of “dub poetry”, a blistering genre that blends reggae and poetry. Johnson was born in Jamaica but came to the UK in 1963, at the age of nine, and lived in Brixton, London. “I began to write verse, not only because I liked it, but because it was a way of expressing the anger, the passion of the youth of my generation in terms of our struggle against racial oppression,” he said in 2018. “Poetry was a cultural weapon in the Black liberation struggle, so that’s how it began.” A crucial trailblazer among these songwriters who are poets, his most powerful works deal with the street experiences of young Black people in 70s and 80s Britain, using the vernacular of the British-Jamaican community as his voice. “I was trying to find a bridge between standard English and spoken Jamaican,” Johnson said in 2022. “For me, what was important was authenticity of voice. I didn’t want to emulate anyone else. I wanted it to sound like me.”

Must hear: Sonny’s Lettah

5: Ian Curtis (1956-1980)

In 2014, a primary-school classmate of Ian Curtis revealed the existence of two poems Curtis had written when he was ten or 11. The first read, “Here she lies/what a shame/she died while having/a rounders game.” The second was titled An epitaph For An Electrian [sic] and told of Fred, who died after receiving an electric shock. In case the teacher didn’t get the point, the young Ian drew a gravestone to accompany his words. One of the finest songwriters who are poets, he had an incredible ability to write dark, blackly humorous, evocative poetry even back then; of course, in his lyrics with Joy Division this only deepened. Curtis’ widow, Deborah Curtis, published his previously unseen poetry and lyrics in 2014, saying, “Words meant such a lot to Ian. If we put a record on, we’d have to listen to absolutely everything. He used to talk about what the lyrics meant and the story behind them. He didn’t like songs that didn’t mean anything.”

Must hear: Twenty-four hours

4: Bob Dylan (1941- )

Awarded the Nobel Prize In Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman and changed his name in homage to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (or so one of his stories goes). Dylan is almost unique in this list of songwriters who are poets, as he was not only influenced by poetry and poems, but actually influenced groundbreaking poets as well: Allen Ginsberg has said, “I heard Hard Rain, I think. And wept. Because it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation, from earlier bohemian, and Beat illumination.” Yet, even from his very earliest days, Dylan has spoken of an ambiguous relationship with the label. “Everybody who writes poems, do you call them a poet?” he said in 1965. “You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets. I don’t call myself a poet, because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.”

Must hear: Subterranean Homesick Blues

3: Patti Smith (1946- )

Who can contain Patti Smith? One of the most influential female musicians of all time, she flies over music, art, poetry, prose and photography, and doesn’t have to land. She seems the embodiment of an artist; the artistic form is pliable to her vision. In her early days, she was absolutely taken with the work of Arthur Rimbaud. “I was 15 when I found a copy of Les Illuminations with Rimbaud’s face looking very Bob Dylanish and thought: that’s the poet,” she said in 2022. She brought Rimbaud’s qualities into the emergent New York City punk scene and, on her 1978 song Easter, referenced him directly: she reimagined his first Holy Communion. But Smith was also a direct descendent of street poetry, with Piss Factory and the later People Have The Power drawn straight from the pavement pulpit. “When people ask whether I’d like to be called a singer, songwriter, artist or poet,” she reflected, “I say: if you call me a worker, you’ll encompass everything I do.”

Must hear: Piss Factory

2: Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

Gil Scott-Heron referred to his music as “Bluesology”: the point where poetry, blues, jazz and soul meet. While the political context of racism, injustice, social deprivation and political sleights-of-hand is the most immediately arresting feature of his work, Scott-Heron profoundly understood the links between the lived experience of African-Americans, right down to the most intimate emotions, and the wider sources of oppression. For instance, Pieces Of A Man and Home Is Where The Hatred Is deeply connect personal anguish with the trauma of opportunities denied in wider society. And if all that wasn’t enough, his seminal 1971 track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is often credited as the first rap song. “They are nothing but love songs,” Scott-Heron has said about his 70s work. “We already had this information. We didn’t have to share it if we didn’t care about people.”

Must hear: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

1: Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Leonard Cohen once reflected that it was poetry, and in particular, the poetry of Federíco García Lorca, that gave him permission to write. “Every poem that touches you is like a call that needs a response,” Cohen said, “[and] one wants to respond with his own story.” Cohen published prose and poetry for years before making albums. Legend has it that it was in the summer of 1965 when, singing his poems and playing on the harmonica, a nearby couple started to make out – which Cohen took as a good sign for branching out into music. His work is hard to sum up; the pleasure in Cohen is the depth, the ambiguity, the profanity, the mystery. There are endless new meanings to discover in his work, and this is why he tops this list of songwriters who are poets. “Think of the words as science, not as art,” he wrote in 1978. “Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event, but from theirs.”

Must hear: Recitation w/ NL

Looking for more? Check out the world’s best songwriters.

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