Poetry isn’t only found in old books, it’s also broadcasted on the radio.
A course offered by the Ohio State Department of English looks at alternative rock lyrics as poetry. Alternative Rock Lyrics as Poems will be offered in Spring 2017 as an upper-division level course for English majors, English 4560, and as a Cultures and Ideas GE course, English 3364, which will also include an introduction to poetry.
“In the 19th century, poetry was part of everyday life, and now people think it is not,” said Elizabeth Renker, an English professor who created the class a decade ago. “(We have) forgotten that song lyrics are a form of poetry and song lyrics are the primary place, in my opinion, where poetry lives in our culture.”
A common theme that Renker says she’s seen across her time teaching poetry is that people have a lot of anxiety about the subject. She says she consistently hears two common responses: “I just don’t get poetry” and “I’ve never understood poetry.”
She said the tone of self-doubt and inferiority bothered her, so she tried to get students in her classes in touch with a particular poem by using an analogy to a contemporary song. When students responded positively, she thought it would be worth making a class of its own.
Renker polls enrolled students prior to the start of semester about favorite artists and songs and incorporates their answers into the syllabus. Students pair poems written over the past four centuries with recent songs that explore similar themes or forms. Examples include comparing T.S. Eliot with Arcade Fire, Robert Frost with St. Vincent and John Donne with The Smiths.
“If you’re a fan of songs, you already have it in you,” Renker said. “And learning the skills for interpretation will just allow you to derive more pleasure from this form of poetry that you’re already connected with.”
Billy Pietrykowski, a 2009 graduate with in English and French, took the first incarnation of the the course in 2007. He praised the course’s ability to transform his listening ear, allowing music to be more than “just the catchy hook you sing along to on the radio.”
As part of the course, students have the opportunity to participate in a video conference with musicians to discuss lyric writing and student interpretations of their songs. Past classes have held conversations with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Matt Berninger of The National and Richard Edwards of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s.
Asking artists directly about what their intent was in writing the poems was Jack Lynch’s favorite part of the class. Lynch, a 2015 graduate in English, spoke to Peter Silberman of The Antlers.
“It was pretty intense.” Lynch said. “We had been studying his albums – his babies – and we all came to class prepared with 3-5 questions each and we basically just grilled him on his songs.”
Renker said she keeps her ears open year-round for artists who are writing poetic lyrics, and she sends letters out year-round to establish contact.
“What leads a very, very busy musician, and in some cases a bona fide rock star to respond to this letter from a stranger? I think the answer has to be that people have forgotten that this is a form of poetry and I think something about that is really intriguing to them,” Renker said.