In a world full of division, we can all agree that music can bring people together. It moves us to dance and comradery, it speaks what sometimes we don’t know how to say otherwise. With that thought in mind, music is a close cousin to poetry. Poetry also speaks of what we don’t always know how to communicate in everyday life. Although there are many that find poetry boring or not their cup of tea if you will, there are a lot of similarities between music and poetry when it comes to the message, the rhyme, and the feelings it evokes.
So, in honor of Poetry Month, here are some great musicians that are also published poets. Let’s take a closer look at these talented musicians and poets and see firsthand how poetry can be music to our ears.
Meet Leonard Cohen
When I started writing this post, I did not know as much about Leonard Cohen as I would care to admit. I knew he was a singer, but I did not realize the extent of his career and the legacy he left in books of poetry and in music that has transcended the test of time. His life was indeed a fascinating journey of creativity but to add even more intrigue, he was in a Zen Buddhist Monastery for 5 years! It doesn’t take long when researching his life to realize that he was a complicated man of depth who was indeed a prolific songwriter, poet, and novelist.
His songs were considered folk rock that told of life, despair, and love with a voice once said to be that of a grumble up through chords like an earthquake. Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the winner of countless awards such as the Prince of Asturias Award for literature and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Most songwriters start out in music and eventually publish works of poetry, but Cohen started out in the business of writing poetry and novels, and it wasn’t until later that he began his career in the music industry. He was once quoted as saying that the songwriter in him was more of a calling than a job, so while his career as a musician lasted 5 decades, his poetry and songs have proved timeless.
Cohen has written many novels including "The Favourite Game" and "Beautiful Losers". He has published numerous poetry collections and was awarded the Governor General's Award for his poetry collection, "Selected Poems 1956 - 1968". The books sold over 200, 000 copies but Cohen refused the award. He has won countless other awards including the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, and his songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.
He has a wonderful array of books to choose from but here is one that you can check out now:
Meet Patti Smith
The name Patti Smith may seem like a common name, but the singer, songwriter, artist, and poet Patti Smith is no common person, and she certainly has become a household name. She was born in Chicago, Illinois to Beverly Smith a waitress who was once a jazz singer and introduced her to poetry by giving her a copy of William Blake’s “Song of Innocence and of and of Experience” when she was only eight.
She grew up in New Jersey but eventually moved to New York City where her artistic career began. She worked at a local bookstore, and it was during this time that she began writing and performing poetry. Those years were a big part of what inspired some of her books and music.
Smith is truly a multi-talented creative soul. Not only has she published numerous books of poetry, prose, and also memoirs, but she is a noted photographer and artist as well. Smith’s photography, drawings, and installations have been featured at galleries and museums all over the world.
Although she is well known for being the pioneer of the punk rock movement, her songwriting has been praised for its literary quality and blending of rock and poetry. Like Leonard Cohen, Smith was a poet first before she was a musician and songwriter.
Her memoir “Just Kids” won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Her album, “Horses” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2021. In 2022 Smith was one of the amazing poets awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Even in her memoirs her language is poetry, and she has written many of both. Here are a couple of her poetry/prose books that you can check out now:
Meet Tupac Shakur
As poets and musicians can often be, Tupac Shakur was a complicated soul. He was known as a rapper, actor, activist, thug, poet, rebel, and visionary, and one cannot help but ponder how a person could be all these things rolled into one!
He was born in 1971 towards the end of the civil rights movement. He was raised solely by his mother, Afeni Shakur, who had a colorful life of her own. She had dealt with drug addiction, was a political activist herself, and was arrested more than once for different charges. Although the relationship between Afeni and Tupac was at times strained, she played a huge role in Tupac’s poetic inspirations and perspective on society and civil rights. Both his parents were members of the Black Panther Party – a revolutionary party associated with the Black Power civil rights movement during the 60s and 70s. He was surrounded by people in his early years who were involved and convicted of serious criminal activity including murder. So, it is no wonder some of his music would glorify the violent drug-filled “thug life”.
Yet, his poetry shows a softer side that lingered underneath the surface. When he was 11, he wrote and illustrated a booklet of haiku to give to his godfather who was in prison at the time. These poems showcased his gift for words and creativity. Years later during an interrogation, he was quoted as saying that he was fascinated by the relationship between rap and poetry, and he went on to say “rap is poetry”.
Before he was ever a rapper, he wrote poetry in Jr. High and studied it in Highschool. Capital Xtra a globally owned radio station, quoted him as saying that Shakespeare was a big influence in his work.
Although he was tragically killed at 25 in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting, Tupac remains one of the most recognizable faces and voices in hip-hop. His music has sold 75 million records worldwide.
His poetry book, “A Rose That Grew from Concrete” was not published during his lifetime but contains poetry he wrote from 1989 to 1991. Whether you are a hip-hop or poetry fan or not at all, here is his book to check out or place on hold now to see what you think for yourself:
The Rose That Grew From Concrete
Meet Lana Del Rey
When you see the singer-songwriter Elizabeth Woolridge Grant who is professionally known as Lana Del Rey on the stage, you see a polished strawberry-haired beauty that has wowed audiences since 2011. Her countless hits from “Video Games” to “Summertime Sadness” have portrayed a cinematic glamour that has been a staple throughout her career. She exudes a certain elegant confidence that is hard to deny, but when she was growing up, she struggled with anxiety and alienation. She is quoted as saying, “When I was very young, I was sort of floored by the fact that my mother and my father and everyone I knew was going to die one day, and myself too. I had a sort of a philosophical crisis. I couldn't believe that we were mortal. For some reason that knowledge sort of overshadowed my experience. I was unhappy for some time. I got into a lot of trouble. I used to drink a lot. That was a hard time in my life.” I have to say I did something like that in my formative years, so I can truly relate to what she went through.
When she was around 15, her parents sent her to a strict boarding school to get sober. After she graduated, she went to live with her aunt and uncle where she worked as a waitress and learned with the guidance of her uncle how to play guitar. During that time, she realized that she could probably write a million songs from those 6 chords he had taught her, and the rest is history.
She began singing in nightclubs to songs she had written and eventually enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx where she majored in philosophy with an emphasis on metaphysics. She later said she chose these subjects because they both bridged the gap between God and science which fueled her desire to find out where we came from and how God fit into the picture.
In her early years of performing her songs, Del Rey made her own music videos and uploaded them to YouTube. Her first big hit, “Video Games” became a viral internet sensation which is how she got her first record deal and debut single. Del Rey once said in an interview that she is a writer first and a singer second, and her 12 years of songs certainly confirm those words.
In 2022, Del Rey published her first poetry collection, “Violet Bent Backwards Over Grass”. It features drafts, photography, and finished poems. It took years for Del Rey to write, and she has already mentioned more than once that she plans to continue her career as a writer in addition to her singing career. I smell the fragrance of future poetry books in her garden!
Here it is for you to check out or place on hold:
Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass
Meet Jim Morrison
When we think of Morrison the words psychedelic, mysterious, and even reckless could come to mind, but the American rock singer and songwriter was also a poet at heart. Originally known as James Douglas Morrison, he grew up loving philosophy, poetry, and 16th century literature.
An avid reader from a young age, Morrison was inspired by the writings of philosophers and poets alike. The poet/philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a huge impact on his writing and appeared in his songs, poetry, and conversation. In Highschool, his intelligence and musical talent were quite evident to all that knew him.
His father was in the military and Morrison moved several times during his formative years. After he graduated, he went to live with his grandparents in Clearwater, Florida and attended college until he transferred to study film at UCLA where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. That is where he met the future members of what would become the iconic band the Doors.
Morrison’s inspiration for the title of the band was from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception which was an autobiographical book based on Huxley’s experience under the influences of the psychedelic inducing drug mescaline. Although they struggled for the first two years, the Doors became one of the most influential and successful bands of the 60s, selling over 4 million albums.
The eight years that followed were a rollercoaster ride of success and controversy. Morrison’s lyrics and voice were iconic along with his erratic stage persona, and these attributes made the group an important figure of 60s era counterculture. Unfortunately, that same erratic stage behavior including drunken episodes, contributed to Morrison leaving the band.
In 1971, Morrison left the Doors to write poetry in Paris. He had already self-published three volumes of his poetry: The Lords/Notes on Vision, The New Creatures, and An American Prayer. Despite his notoriety for being a rebel in life and on stage, Morrison was a talented poet whose rich imagery could not be denied. Even with such fame as a rock star, he wanted to be known for the written word and to be recognized as a poet/prophet. He died later that year at 27. I think it is safe to say his longings came to pass, although whether he truly grasped that is a mystery we will never know.
Here is a collection of all his work including lyrics, poetry, and his prior published writings that can be checked out electronically:
The Collected Works of Jim Morrison
Along with these amazing poets, there are many other musicians that have written poetry and acquired the true title of poet. Here are a few names that I am sure some of you have heard of and enjoyed their music: Alicia Keys, Joni Michell, Jewel, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan to name a few.
“All poetry and music, and art of every true sort, bears witness to man’s continual falling in love with beauty and his desperate attempt to induce beauty to live with him and enrich his common life.” ~ John Bertram Phillips