Remember when Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize in literature? The classic rock fandom were happy about this, but not everyone was. In the literature world, this was controversial. There’s a lot of elitism in that scene with American writers being generally seen as lesser than their European counterparts. One British poet, Simon Armitage, said that “songwriters are not poets” and “songs are not poems”. What a hot take.
In the case of Bob Dylan, not only is he American, he’s a pop culture figure best known for his music, even though he’s accomplished in other ways as a poet, visual artist, and activist. He had chart hits and that’s not typical of a Nobel Prize winner. How can a songwriter be a poet?
In a lot of ways I’m a strange person. I never pictured myself as a writer. I thought I’d be a classic rock DJ, not telling you stories of classic rock in a blog format. I’m a writer who dreaded English class. Not because I didn’t like to write or read, it’s the subject matter that bored me. Why are we reading hard to relate to books written in archaic language? Can’t I read something more relatable? Why are we reading these boring poems? Can’t we study song lyrics instead? It’s not like they’re all shallow and about boobs, fast cars, and Mary Jane. And what’s wrong with writing under the influence of weed?
If only Dewey Finn were your English teacher. Sadly since he’s a fictional character, you’re stick with me, not an English teacher, but a classic rock fan who wants to show other sides of the genres that make up that era. Classic rock has a lot of intelligence in it. In fact, there are genres in it that are deemed pretentious: metal, art rock, and progressive rock. Folk music isn’t exactly seen as pretentious, but Bob Dylan is one of those musicians considered intimidating to get into. I can admit that I felt that way about him too.
In this blog post, my goal is to share with you many other musicians who are published poets. Bob Dylan is the best known one, but there are others who were inspired by him and you might not be aware of the poetry side of them. This is what I wish I was able to study in English class. Maybe I would have been more interested.
These are musicians who make poetry cool.
Published Poetry: Tarantula and Writings and Drawings
It’s only right that we start this blog post with Bob Dylan. When you think classic rock poet, that’s who you think of straight away. He influenced a lot of the people I’ll be talking about in this blog post. What makes his music special is the wide variety of influences it draws from: (talking) blues, folk, country, R&B, 50s rock and roll, British Invasion, and various types of poetry (Beat, symbolist, and modernist). In this blog post, we’re only talking about the poetry influences in his work and his published works.
The Beats started in the 50s, just a few years before Bob Dylan started recording music and that type of poetry shaped Bob Dylan and his work. The Beats were hippies before they were hippies: rejecting conformity, anti-consumerism, getting into Eastern cultures, and experimenting with drugs and sex. Beat poets include Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. The scene started in New York City, around the Columbia University campus and Greenwich Village, but many of the Beats ended up moving to San Francisco and travelling to the Pacific Northwest. Many classic rockers cite the Beatniks as an influence and said they wanted to be like them. Some of the Beats befriended rock stars. Ginsberg was friends with Bob Dylan. Burroughs was friends with Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Patti Smith.
As for Bob Dylan’s published poetry, in the mid-60s, he wrote Tarantula, an experimental prose poetry collection. He says that it was an accident that he wrote it and didn’t intend on writing a book. He compares it to John Lennon’s nonsense poetry book In His Own Write. He was supposed to publish it in 1966, but the publishing was delayed by 5 years because he got into a motorcycle accident. Writings and Drawings was published in 1973, but is now out of print. The book is mainly songs he wrote in the 60s with some poems and doodles thrown in the mix.
Published Poetry: Still Water
Art Garfunkel is a bookworm and avidly reads. He flexes on his website with a list of all the books he has read since 1968. He’s also very educated, with a BA in art history and an MA in mathematics education. He got into poetry and reading when he started studying at Columbia University in 1959.
On his website, you can read poems from Still Water, a collection of prose poems published in 1989 and considered very well-received. He started writing poetry in the 80s while on tour in Europe. Below each poem, you can see the year it was written and the place it was written in.
Published Poetry: Blinking with Fists
The Smashing Pumpkins lead singer and primary songwriter is also a poet. In 2004, he published his poetry book, Blinking with Fists, a collection of 57 poems. This effort though received mixed reviews from critics with some calling it pretentious.
Published Poetry: Soundbites 4 Tha Revelation
Soft Machine and Gong co-founder and prog rocker Daevid Allen also did poetry. Like a lot of people on this list, he was inspired by the Beat Generation, who he found out about through working at a book store in Melbourne. He was so inspired by their work that he travelled to Paris and stayed at the Beat Hotel. Later on in life, he moved to Byron Bay and worked on performance pieces and poetry.
Published Poetry: So Far, So Good and Now and Then
Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t only a hip hop pioneer (considered the Godfather of Rap) and spoken word performer, he was also an author, poet, and lecturer. While in secondary school, his writing was so good that he got a full scholarship to The Fieldston School.
His writing hero was Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes. When thinking about which university he wanted to go to, he chose Lincoln University because that’s where Hughes went. While there, he met keyboard player, flute player, and producer Brian Jackson, who he would collaborate with for years. After two years of his undergrad degree, he decided to take a gap year to write two novels, The Vulture and The N***** Factory. While he never finished his undergraduate degree, he got admitted to the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where he earned an MA in creative writing. He taught literature and creative writing at Federal City College in Washington DC.
The two poetry books mentioned above were published in 1990 and 2001, respectively. If you like to read political poems, then you might like his poems.
In this video, you can hear Gil Scott-Heron talk about blues and poetry.
Published Poetry: The Written Works of Graeme Edge (not counting his poems with The Moody Blues)
Graeme Edge is best known for being the drummer and one of the songwriters of The Moody Blues. If you listen to the Moody Blues, you would know that some of The Moody Blues songs of the late 60s and early 70s have a poem in it recited by Mike Pinder.
Originally, The Moody Blues had a Beat/R&B inspired sound, but in 1967 that all changed and they went prog rock starting with the classic Days of Future Passed. What sparked that change was when an angry fan let the band knew what they thought of how they sounded. Graeme Edge took it to heart and said the band needed to shift away from blues covers and write more original music.
From that point, Graeme Edge started incorporating poetry into the Moody Blues’ music. A few of their songs start with a poem and then it segues into music.
On Days of Future Passed, he contributed the poems “Morning Glory”, part of the opening track, “The Day Begins” and “Late Lament”, on the closing track “The Night”. It’s an album you have to listen to and I always say this, but it sounds like something Disney could have made a whole movie based on: if Fantasia were made in the 60s.
Here are some poems Graeme Edge wrote for The Moody Blues:
- “Departure” (segues into “Ride My See Saw”) and “The Word” (segues into “Om”) on In Search of the Lost Chord
- “In the Beginning” and “The Dream” from On the Threshold of a Dream
- “Higher and Higher” from To Our Children’s Children’s Children
- “The Balance” from A Question of Balance
My personal favourite poems from Moody Blues songs are “The Word” and “Higher and Higher”.
In his poetry book, The Written Works of Graeme Edge, you’ll find poems from Moody Blues songs and his solo work with annotations containing anecdotes on why and how he wrote those songs.
Published Poetry: The Lords and the New Creatures, An American Prayer, Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, and The American Night: The Writings of Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison is another name you think of when you think rock and roll poet. If this were a Family Feud survey says question: I think Jim Morrison would easily be in that top 5. Not only a great poet, but also an incredible performer and very intelligent. The Doors’ name came from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, a reference to doors opening up when you do psychedelic drugs.
Throughout his life, he loved reading. In fact, his grade 12 English teacher said he probably read more than anyone else in his class and loved reading stuff so offbeat that they had to check to make sure the books he was citing actually existed. His biggest influences were Nietzsche, Plutarch, Arthur Rimbaud, William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Baudelaire, Molière, Albert Camus, Honoré de Balzac, and Jean Cocteau.
When Jim Morrison wrote songs, he didn’t typically write them on piano or guitar. He would come up with the vocal melodies for his lyrics and have the band contribute the chords and rhythm. During live shows, Jim Morrison would improvise spoken word poetry passages. He was friends with Beat poet Michael McClure.
In 1969, he self-published his first poetry volume: The Lords and the New Creatures. In The Lords section, he described people, places, events, and cinema (what he studied at UCLA). The New Creatures section was the more poetic one. All of his other published poetry books were published posthumously.
Jim Morrison’s grave is in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Many poets and writers were buried in this cemetery.
Published Poetry: In His Own Write, A Spaniard in the Works, and Skywriting by Word of Mouth.
From a young age, John Lennon was encouraged by his uncle to draw and write poems. While John Lennon was in The Beatles, he published two books: In His Own Write – a collection of surreal short stories, poems, and line drawings and the first Beatles solo project in any medium; and A Spaniard in the Works (a pun/play on words of “a spanner in the works”) – even more nonsensical stories and doodles. John Lennon’s poetry uses free association (spontaneously writing/saying what you want without constriction), improvisation, disconnected ideas, puns, near-homonyms, creative misspellings, and bizarre imagery. His poetry isn’t as accessible or easy to understand as The Beatles, but still worth a look if you love John Lennon and must experience everything Beatles.
John Lennon got the idea to publish his poetry from a journalist who he showed his writing. The journalist told him that he should publish a book and that’s what he did.
On National Poetry Day 1999, the BBC surveyed people in the UK and found that the most loved song lyrics were “Imagine”. It’s a song that everyone wishes they wrote. Love it or hate it, people won’t stop playing it and it still has a message that is relevant today and you can find something in it that resonates with you.
Published Poetry: Joni Mitchell: The Complete Poems and Lyrics
Joni Mitchell didn’t like school very much, but one unconventional teacher saw a lot of potential in her and inspired her to write poetry. This teacher had so much of an impact on who she became that she dedicated her first album to that teacher. In 1997, she published a poetry book.
Published Poetry: How To Be Invisible
Before Kate Bush was famous, she wrote poems for her school newspaper. Here, you can read some of her early poems, written when she was as young as 11 years old and they’re very dark. In 2018, she published a book of her lyrics, How To Be Invisible. Reading lyrics versus hearing them in a song are two totally different experiences.
Throughout Kate Bush’s music, you can find literary references: Wuthering Heights of course, The Sensual World being inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Side B of Hounds of Love is subtitled The Ninth Wave – a reference to Tennyson’s poem Idylls of the King.
Published Poetry: Kurt Cobain: Journals
Kurt Cobain was a Generation X icon and one of the most influential musicians in alternative music. Like many other classic rockers mentioned on this list, he was inspired by Beat poets as well. He got to collaborate with one of his idols, William S. Burroughs on The “Priest” They Called Him. While Burroughs was reading his poetry deadpan, Kurt Cobain provided guitar backing.
Cobain’s writing style was full of dark humour. Throughout his life, he kept journals where he revealed what he was thinking, what inspired him, and he would draw. Some of his influences revealed in the journals were John Lennon, The Stooges, Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, and David Bowie. In the journal entries he would also get political and talk about the history of rock and roll.
Published Poetry: Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice-Box of Earth, Flowers for Hitler, Parasites of Heaven, The Energy of Slaves, Death of a Lady’s Man, Book of Mercy, Stranger Music, Book of Longing, and more!
Leonard Cohen’s original goal was to be a novelist and a poet and he published books in the 50s and early-mid 60s. He didn’t start his music career until 1967. His biggest influences in writing were W.B. Yeats, Irving Layton, Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Arthur Miller.
In 1951, Cohen went to McGill and was the president of the Debating Union and won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for his poems “Sparrows” and “Thoughts of a Landsman”. In 1954, his poems were first published in a magazine and they were published alongside his poet-professors Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. His first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, published in 1956 and is the first book in the McGill Poetry Series, contains poems Cohen wrote between the ages of 15 and 20.
Before he was famous, he was lucky enough to get a small trust income from his inheritance to support him while he was pursuing a writing career. After the 60s, he published poetry more sporadically.
Published Poetry: Do Angels Need a Haircut
In the 70s after The Velvet Underground broke up, Lou Reed wrote poems that wouldn’t be seen for decades, although he performed them at St Mark’s Church in 1971 and Allen Ginsberg was in the audience. In 2018, Do Angels Need a Haircut was posthumously published. That book contains short stories and poems written by Lou Reed in the early 70s. His love of poetry doesn’t end there. In the early 2000s, Lou Reed released The Raven, based on an opera he co-wrote with Robert Wilson, called POEtry. As you can guess from the title, it’s a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe with original songs and spoken word performances of reworked Poe texts.
Published Poetry: The Warlock of Love
Glam rock poet that David Bowie looked up to. People often see just one side of Marc Bolan, the androgynous teen idol glam rocker who sang about cars, yet was afraid of driving. But there’s a lot more to Marc Bolan than that. As a teenager, he said that his dream was to be a poet.
Before he got famous with the hit “Get It On”, Marc Bolan was in a psychedelic folk duo called Tyrannosaurus Rex, known for super long song and album titles. In 1969 while there was drama between Marc and Steve Peregrin Took, Marc Bolan published his only poetry book, The Warlock of Love, inspired by Romantic imagery, Celtic and Greek mythology, and Tolkien. It was the top selling British poetry book of 1969. If you like the fantasy themed hippie songs of his pre-glam rock albums, you might want to read The Warlock of Love.
After his death, a few stories of his were published: Pictures of Purple People, The Krakenmist, and The Caged Thrush.
Published Poetry: Seventh Heaven, Early Morning Dream, A Useless Death, Witt, The Night, Ha! Ha! Houdini!, Babel, and more!
Patti Smith was known as the punk poet laureate. She is a prolific writer and incorporated poetry in her music. Her writing influences range from Rimbaud and Artaud to Hendrix and Dylan. Her writing style is stream of consciousness. She had an interest in poetry starting when she was in secondary school and started performing her poems with just a guitarist before expanding the lineup to include a whole band.
In the early 70s, she was a member of the St Mark’s Poetry Project. In 1974, she performed spoken word poetry on Ray Manzarek’s “I Wake Up Screaming”. In one of her hits, a cover of Them’s “Gloria” she opened with “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” from her poem, ‘Oath’.
You can read some of her poems here.
Published Poetry: Few Poems; Let ‘Em Roll, Kafka; The Old Pals’ Act; and The Not Forgotten Association.
Pete Brown is a performance poet best known for his songwriting work with Cream, Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, and Phil Ryan. He published his first poem at the age of 14 and it appeared in the US magazine, Evergreen Review. He formed a band called The First Real Poetry band.
He cowrote “I Feel Free”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “White Room”, among others for Cream.
Published Poetry: No books that I know of, but you can read his poems and haikus on his website.
The prog rock poet. He co-founded and wrote lyrics for King Crimson, co-writing the songs on In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and Islands. Not only that, but he offered advice on album artwork and design. Musically, he wasn’t strong enough to sing or play guitar. You got the talented Robert Fripp and Greg Lake.
He worked with Roxy Music – producing their debut single “Virginia Plain”; wrote English lyrics for Italian prog rock band Premiata Forneria Marconi and produced albums for them; wrote a lot of lyrics for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and wrote songs for Gary Brooker (formerly of Procol Harum).
His biggest influences are Bob Dylan and Donovan.
Published Poetry: Songs For While I’m Away and Philip
Ireland is a country known for literature and great writers: Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Kinsella, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Brendan Behan, the list goes on and on. Who could also be in that list of great writers from Ireland are songwriters/poets, like Van Morrison and Phil Lynott.
Americans may think of him as a one hit wonder because all they know is ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’, but he wrote many great songs. Worldwide, he’s thought of as a hard rocker with a tough image who later on went into metal. Like Marc Bolan, few know the poetic side of him and during his life he wanted to be known for his poetic song lyrics and not just as a rock singer. If you look into the song lyrics, they weren’t just cliched stereotypical classic rock songs,
His biggest poetry/songwriting influences were Bob Dylan and Irish mythology. He was very proud to be Irish and wrote many songs about his cultural background and his life. I love the wordplay filled tribute to Irish writers and culture in ‘Black Rose: A Rock Legend’ – all rise for the national anthem!
He wrote two poetry books, mostly with song lyrics, Songs For While I’m Away (includes one poem that was never made a song, ‘A Holy Encounter’), published in 1974, and Philip, published in 1977.
Published Poetry: Centigrade 232 (also a spoken word album) and The Earth Ritual
This poet was most famous for being a lyricist and member of Hawkwind. He was born in South Africa and raised in England. In the 60s, he joined the psychedelic subculture and contributed to underground magazine, Friendz. During this time he befriended New Wave science fiction writers like Michael Moorcock. Calvert also had interests in theatre and music and could easily move between the three mediums. He later befriended David Brock and became a member of Hawkwind. He co-wrote their biggest hit, “Silver Machine”.
He also worked with Arthur Brown, Steve Peregrin Took, Jim Capaldi, Steve Pond, Vivian Stanshall, Nektar, and Amon Düül II.
Published Poetry: The Silver Snarling Trumpet, A Box of Rain, Night Cadre, Idiot’s Delight, Sentinel, Infinity Minus Eleven: Poems, Dog Moon, Glass Lunch, and The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
Robert Hunter was a lyricist and songwriter who worked with The Grateful Dead. He grew up in California and spent his childhood in foster homes before returning to live with his mum. He read books to escape a difficult and unstable childhood. In secondary school, he learnt to play multiple instruments. After he graduated, his family moved to Connecticut and he attended UConn, but dropped out after a year. When he returned to Palo Alto, he was introduced to Jerry Garcia and they started playing music together.
While in New Mexico, he wrote the songs “China Cat Sunflower”, “St Stephen”, “Dark Star”, and “Alligator” for The Grateful Dead. He and Jerry Garcia wrote all the songs on Aoxomoxoa. He also co-wrote these songs: “Box of Rain”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Truckin”, “Cumberland Blues”, and “Dire Wolf”.
After The Grateful Dead broke up, he worked with Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Jim Lauderdale, Cesar Rosas, David Nelson, and Bruce Hornsby.
Published Poetry: ‘One River’
Roger Waters is best known for his concept albums, but he’s also written poems. In the Pink Floyd fandom, people joke about how many Roger Waters songs are about his dad, who he didn’t know because he was missing in action in WWII. Eric Waters’ remains were never found, so his son, Roger, was hoping for him to come home. In 2002, he wrote a poem about his father called ‘One River’. He sent it to war veteran Harry Shindler, who found Eric Waters’ location of passing – in Anzio, Italy.
Serge Gainsbourg was one of the best known French musicians of the 60s and is widely considered the most important French pop musician of his time. A legend! The genres he performed in include jazz, chanson, and yé-yé. Not only that, but he was a poet too! Gainsbourg’s writing style incorporated wordplay, sophisticated rhymes, spoonerism, paraprosdokian, and puns.
What made him special was that he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope with his work and his songs featured sexual innuendos and provocative lyrics. One famous example of a song of his that was banned was his duet with his girlfriend at the time, Jane Birkin, “Je T’aime… Moi non plus” (I love you, me neither). The lyrics were delivered in such a provocative, breathy, sexual way that radio stations in various countries such as Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Brazil, and the UK. The song was so scandalous that the Vatican excommunicated the record executive who released the song in Italy. Gainsbourg took pride in the Pope’s being triggered by the song and said something like The Pope is “our greatest PR man”. Still, despite being banned, the song topped the charts in the UK, making history as the first banned #1 single in the country’s history. Meanwhile in more puritan America, the song didn’t get any radio airplay (keep in mind this is the country that considered “Louie Louie” an obscene song). Whoever said the 60s were a prude time, well they clearly haven’t heard Serge Gainsbourg.
Published Poetry: Hard Ground
Tom Waits’ songs are often about the underbelly, marginalised people. He was influenced by Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, jazz, country music, blues, folk, vaudeville, and experimental music. He never achieved much mainstream success back in the 70s and 80s, but his music is influential, he has a cult following, and Rolling Stone recognised him as one of the top 100 songwriters of all time. People call him the bard of the streets and poet of outcasts.
It only makes sense that he collaborated with photographer Michael O’Brien on their poetry/photography book, Hard Ground.
O’Brien started doing photojournalism while in university, taking pictures for the student paper. A couple documentary photo series helped launch his career: one of the coal mining community in Appalachia and another documentary feature about homelessness where he followed a man in his 50s named John Madden who he photographed for 6 months and befriended. This project won him the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
Together, O’Brien and Waits created a complementary portrait of homelessness to humanise those who are going through hard times. Any of us could be homeless and a missed paycheque can mean the difference between having a roof over your head or sleeping rough.
Published Poetry: Lit Up Inside, Keep ‘Er Lit,
He was an influence on Jim Morrison and was Ireland’s first rock star. His biggest musical influences were American blues music, jazz, folk, and Irish music. As for writing, he likes William Blake, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth.
Ever listen to Astral Weeks? That album is full of poetry and the lyrics are beautiful and the album has been praised by famous music critic Lester Bangs, who said that album came at a perfect time, he was in a rough patch in life and it helped him get through it, and it was the “rock record with the most significance” in his life. German filmmaker Wim Wenders said this about Van Morrison’s music, “I know of no music that is more lucid, feel able, hearable, seeable, touchable, no music you can experience more intensely than this.”
Poetry though isn’t just limited to these musicians. I’d argue that well-written songs are indeed poetry and are worth studying too. Looking at song lyrics and analysing them can be a way to get that person who hates English class to like it a bit more. When you’re passionate about what your essay is about, it’s a lot more enjoyable to write and your enthusiasm shows in your writing. To me, rock and roll is all about thinking forward, so why think backwards when it comes to education? Let’s try something different and find ways to make school relevant and more meaningful to students.
Shoutout to my friends Patrick and Matt for supporting the blog!
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[…] I wrote about classic rockers who are also poets. […]
I’d always hoped that Keith Reid would get a publisher for his poems; kind of interesting that, for their most recent album “Novum” (2017), Procol Harum employed Pete Brown as their lyricist instead of Mr Reid : a first ever in their long history.
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[…] Lizzy song “A Song For While I’m Away”, and the documentary shares a name with Phil Lynott’s only poetry book. Yes! Phil Lynott was a published poet! Ireland’s a country well known for literature with […]
[…] Poetic – Did you know some classic rockers are published poets? […]