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Out of Tune

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Popular music is usually meant to be discarded in favor of the next big sound. But every once in a while, something hangs around. Some of it even has the power to move us across decades, or generations. But does that make it "poetry"?

Two events in August precipitated this question. Each brought twinges of nostalgia to those of us at an age when most twinges come from arthritis. The first was the release of two CD collections of early songs by Bob Dylan, some going back to 1962. There he was once again in all his surly skinniness, just beginning to write the first music that, for his fans, meant something. The second was the beginning of another Rolling Stones world tour. Never mind that three band members are over 60, when "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" means something else. Never mind that the voices are rougher, the strut is stiffer, and the performance-enhancing drugs are different. The geezers are still rockin'.

Their music and Dylan's mattered, in part, because it wasn't like the stuff our parents liked — the "standards" coming from New York's Tin Pan Alley from the early 20th century until Elvis shook his hips and the musical world changed. The standards had dumb lines like "birds do it/bees do it/even educated fleas do it/let's do it/let's fall in love." This was not compelling for a generation fomenting the sexual revolution.

But the standards haven't gone away. They still matter to someone. They're now even being recorded by overage rock stars. The "educated fleas" lyric came from Cole Porter, subject of a recent movie biography, and the song "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" is on close to 300 records, nearly two dozen of them released in the new millennium. When The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939, who could have imagined that almost seven decades later, in times of grieving, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" would be deeply moving?

The only thing that bothers me about this is the assumption that if we like a popular song, it must be poetry. The words "poet" and "poetry" flew fast and furious in the days leading up to the release of the early Dylan CDs — this about a man who pens great lines but also ones like: "See the primitive wallflower freeze/When the jelly-faced women all sneeze/Hear the one with the mustache say 'Jeeze, I can't find my knees." The standards also turn out to have been written by poets, according to the author of a very good book titled The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Even the Rolling Stones occasionally appear on poetry Web sites, not where we thought they'd end up 40 years ago.

Surely rap music is the exception to the rule. Non-fans are skeptical that rhyming to "yo" will get anyone into an anthology of American poetry. To test the point, I'll submit, for a candid world to judge, a more or less random lyric from a currently popular performer. It loses something in translation because I've had to BLIP the words we hope small children can't define with any precision. Here it goes: "And I'm like yeah, this BLIP is on my BLIP/I love this music BLIP, man, this BLIP is the BLIP right here, man." That can't be poetry, can it? Yes. According to a former president of the Modern Language Association, rappers are "the black poets of the contemporary urban scene."

Like it or not, rap is as meaningful to some people as Dylan and the Stones, or the standards, are to others, including the neighbor who shares his music with us through brick walls.

But why does any of it have to be poetry? Isn't it enough just to say that some music moves us and other music doesn't? Or maybe more poetry should move us the way popular music does. Or maybe — here's a thought — poetry would move us if we ever actually read it.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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