Poetry Triggers – Music

What flips you over into a poetry mindset? A word, a smell, a glimpse of a sunset over the mountains, the feel of sand while walking on a beach? Many times, for me, it’s a song. It could be the music or the words, but the winning combination is usually the right mix of intelligent lyrics and great music. Music not only helps me with any type of writing, but it also plays a big part in putting me in the proper poetry creation frame of mind.

Musicians with a love of wordplay suck me in more often than not. I’m going to discuss three artists who appear on my playlist as definite inspirations. I dug up a few YouTube videos with examples for those that don’t have the music wired into their brain. (For the techno-goobers… just click play.)

I love the complicated and complex lyrics of Bruce Cockburn and Roger Waters. On the other hand, some artists can take those ‘easy’ rhymes and turn them into an interesting song, one that resonates far more than a glance at the lyrics would have you believe. Tom Petty manages to take rather mundane rhymes, and rework them into something with a raft of underlying meaning.

A great deal of the impact of the lyrics comes from what’s not said, the things left for the listener to fill in on his/her own. Back that with a driving beat and all kinds of happy poetic inspiration jumps to mind.

Ankle Deep

Well, they raised that horse to be a jumper

He was owned by a mid-west bible thumper

His preacher was a Louisiana drummer

Took all winter to get through the summer

The field hand hit the switch and stumbled

Outside the big engine roared and rumbled

The stolen horse spooked and tumbled

She didn’t speak for a week

Just kinda mumbled

—–Ankle deep in love [4x]

He was caught up in a lie he half believed

Found her hiding high in the family tree

Washed his hands and put her cross his knee

She said daddy “you been a mother to me”

—–Ankle deep in love [4x]

(from Tom Petty – Highway Companion © 2006)

The video is purely a means to get the song out there. Don’t expect much, I wanted to illustrate how the music builds the lyrics up to something beyond easy rhyme.

Other Influences

I like Pink Floyd. Between Roger Waters’ lyrics and David Gilmour’s guitar, I find plenty of inspiration, just not always of the happy type. That's okay, if I was purely a happy poet, I’d work for Hallmark. The underlying dark of some of Waters’ lyrics is appealing in its own way, like a scab you can’t stop picking. Never easy, downright uncomfortable at times, the sly and cynical bent appeals to my inner poetic sadist. My favorite ‘dark’ song would have to be the following. The combination of these lyrics and the slow music always makes me shiver, and my mind switches to poetic contemplation.

When The Tigers Broke Free

It was just before dawn

One miserable morning in black ‘forty-four.

When the forward commander

Was told to sit tight

When he asked that his men be withdrawn.

And the Generals gave thanks

As the other ranks held back

The enemy tanks for a while.

And the Anzio bridgehead

Was held for the price

Of a few hundred ordinary lives.

And kind old King George

Sent Mother a note

When he heard that father was gone.

It was, I recall,

In the form of a scroll,

With gold leaf and all.

And I found it one day

In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.

And my eyes still grow damp to remember

His Majesty signed

With his own rubber stamp.

It was dark all around.

There was frost in the ground

When the tigers broke free.

And no one survived

From the Royal Fusiliers Company C.

They were all left behind,

Most of them dead,

The rest of them dying.

And that’s how the High Command

Took my daddy from me.

There are numerous video interpretations of this song floating around out there, it’s interesting how the visuals layer a third component to my poetic duet of music and lyrics. With lots of  middle of nowhere windshield time, I usually supply my own visuals to songs, but hey, this works wonderfully.

My all-time favorite songwriter would have to be Bruce Cockburn. I’ve been listening to him for … well, let’s just say over twenty years, and the man just keeps getting better. He packs his songs so full, the density smacks you right between the eyes. The lyrics, coupled with his incredible guitar playing are good for more than a few inspirational moments. I’ve got several poems that riff off of his lyrics, where the turn of a phrase set my mind spinning to a new direction, a new poem.

Cockburn paints some wonderfully lyrical word pictures. “When You Give It Away” from the album Breakfast in New Orleans is a good example.

“Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse’s hands

onto the hard floor of day

I’d been wearing OJ’s gloves and I couldn’t get them off

It was too early but I couldn’t sleep

showered, dressed, stepped out into the heat

the parrot things on the porch next door

announced my arrival on Chartres Street

with their finest rendition of squealing brakes…”


I love that he uses real words, big words, complex ideas and references with no apologies, hence the denseness of his lyrics. For example, this stanza from “Call It Democracy”.

Sinister cynical instrument

who makes the gun into a sacrament

the only response to the deification

of tyranny by so-called developed nation’s

idolatry of ideology


“Idolatry of Ideology” How awesome is that?

Not to mention Cockburn has several songs that are fine poems in their own right.


After The Rain

After the rain in the streets, light flows like blood

I can just taste salt on the humid wind

Here comes that gasoline

Spreading hungry rainbow over shiny black tar

I’m blown like smoke and blind as wind

Except for when your love breaks in…


Incandescent Blue

I sneaked across the border

It was threatening rain

So I could stand in this tunnel waiting for the roaring train

And watch those black kids working out Kung Fu moves

If you don’t want to be the horses’ hoofprints, you’ve got to be the hooves…


Listening to the songs for so many years it’s hard to separate the lyrics and look at them as poetry without hearing the music resonate in my head. This song shows a deft touch with rhyme, slant rhymes, meter, etc., everything a poet should have in his/her toolbox. After being subjected to the insipidities of pop music downtown one day, I rushed home to inject myself with the antidote.

Northern Lights

by Bruce Cockburn

Sunday night, and it’s half past 9

I’m leaving one more town behind

Mirrors are showing the day’s last glow

As we’re spit out into the jigsaw flow

Ahead where there should be the thickness of night

Stars are pinned on a shimmering curtain of light

Sky full of ripplings, cliffs and chasms

That shine like signs on the road to heaven

I’ve been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains

And cut by the love that flows like a fountain from God

So I carry these scars, precious and rare

And tonight I feel like I’m made of air…


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