Songwriting & Context – Lecture 1: Poetry Analysis and Lyricism

The first module task we have been given for Songwriting and Context is to source a poem written prior to 1920, then analyse its content, summarise it and re-work it into lyrics for a song.

One of my favourite poets is Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), so naturally my first thought was to use a piece of her poetry for this task. I was drawn to a short piece called ‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.’ It’s a poem that frames ‘hope’ within the metaphor of a bird that continues to chirp away even in the face of adversity, and is only silenced in the most dire of circumstances.

‘Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.’

‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers’ isn’t as complex in theme as some of Dickinson’s later work, but nonetheless it is effective at establishing an image in the readers’ mind of a bird, singing prettily beside each of us, reminding us that there is still good in the world. It tells us that hope doesn’t cost us anything, that it exists even in dark times and is at its sweetest when faced with conflict. It’s a beautiful picture.

However, the relatively scarce content of this poem led to some problems when trying to write lyrics. I quickly found myself running out of phrases and imagery to borrow directly from the text so I found that I had to add extra lyrics outside of the poetry. I wrote two drafts, the first of which I felt lacked direction and consistency so I decided to disregard them and begin again.

Draft 1

Verse
A wordless tune, the sweetest sound
The thing with feathers perches in the soul 
Through wind and rain, and storms and gales
The thing with feathers perches in the soul

Chorus
A wordless tune, the sweetest sound
The thing with feathers perches in the soul 
Through wind and rain, and storms and gales
The thing with feathers perches in the soul

More truthfully, I began writing the first draft and gave up half way through. I did, however, begin again. I decided to use the verses as a way of describing to the listener what hope can do and to subtly, (although I don’t think I was successful in this) introduce the bird-as-hope metaphor. I also drew on some of the imagery from the poem itself such as the ‘tune without words’ from the first stanza, and the storm and gale from the second.

The chorus I felt needed to act as a way of giving the listener themselves hope, to be somewhat uplifting, (though again, I doubt my success in achieving this). I made use of most of the poem’s metaphorical imagery here; the bird perching in the soul, hearing the bird singing in the chillest land and strangest sea, the bird never asking for anything in return.

Draft 2

Verse 1
When you’re feeling low
And the darkness calls
Just listen for the wordless tune
It keeps you warm
When the nights are cold
And it never stops singing that wordless tune

Chorus
It takes a lot to stop
The little bird from perching
In the soul
Even in the chillest land
Or on the strangest sea

The little bird never asked a crumb of me

Verse 2
When the gale blows strong
And you can’t hold on
Close your eyes and listen for its song
The feathered hope
Stands by your side
And guides you safely through the roughest storm

Chorus
It takes a lot to stop
The little bird from perching
In the soul
Even in the chillest land
Or on the strangest sea

The little bird never asked a crumb of me

I’m generally pleased with the outcome of this task. I’ve never thought of myself as a lyricist, nor have I ever been confident in my ability to write lyrics, so to have written a song, albeit using someone elses work, is in itself an achievement I’m proud of.

Obviously there are improvements that can be made, and there are aspects of this lyricism that I genuinely dislike, for example the line in the second verse ‘when the gale blows strong; and you can’t hold on.’ It’s hideously cliché but is so because I struggled to think of anything interesting or unique as a lyric. For right now, I’m content with this result and the acknowledgment that it needs improving.

 

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