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When singer-songwriters are poets: Five notable books   Print


CBC Books
June 20, 2013

In a recent feature interview on Q, Joni Mitchell commented that unlike other singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, she's not considered a poet. We at CBC Books beg to differ (and so do many others, judging by the newly released Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs, an anthology of reflections on her work by a wide range of people, including author Wally Lamb and entertainment industry heavyweight David Geffen).

But her remark did get us thinking about some of the gifted musical artists who have published poems -- or a medley of song lyrics and poems. Check out our list of notable crossover artists below. And if there's a singer-songwriter on your playlist that you think deserves recognition as a true poet, let us know in the comments section.

Joni Mitchell: The Complete Poems and Lyrics by Joni Mitchell
At more than 300 pages, this is an exhaustive compilation of the celebrated songwriter's poetry and song lyrics, from her debut album SONG TO A SEAGULL through to 1998's TAMING THE TIGER. Whether you read it cover to cover or dip into it here and there, the collection will inspire a new appreciation for the sophistication of Mitchell's lyrics and the originality of her phrasing. Maybe she doesn't consider herself a poet. But seeing classic songs like A Case Of You, Big Yellow Taxi, Both Sides, Now and many more on the page makes it plain to the reader that they are, indeed, poems.

Stranger Music by Leonard Cohen
This definitive collection, published in 1994, features selections from all eight of the moody troubadour's poetry collections to date (beginning with his critically hailed debut, Let Us Compare Mythologies) as well as some previously unpublished poems. And, of course, it also includes a generous sampling of song lyrics from his many albums, including DEATH OF A LADIES' MAN and I'M YOUR MAN. Critically lauded nationally and internationally, Stranger Music was called "an invaluable record of a shining voice" by the Ottawa Citizen.

Auguries of Innocence by Patti Smith
Smith has been dubbed "The Mother Courage of Rock" by the New York Review of Books, but the iconic punk rocker and visual artist considers herself a poet first and foremost. This 2005 collection, her ninth book, shows why. It ranges in tone from the rhapsodic to the oracular, and is full of the startling turns of phrase that are the hallmarks of her work. As Smith puts it in one poem, a tribute to the power of poetry, "the heart still hums."

Coke Machine Glow by Gordon Downie
Is it any surprise that there's a pensive, poetic side to the lead singer and lyricist of The Tragically Hip? (Think of the band's Bobcaygeon, which won the 2000 Juno Award for single of the year.) Downie's debut book of poetry, which was published in 2001 to coincide with the release of a solo album of the same name, won high praise from critics across the country for its craft. The National Post lauded the poems' "unusual, unexpected imagery," adding that "the words are exact, sensuous and satisfying."

Selected Poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson by Linton Kwesi Johnson
This 2006 collection gathers work from three decades of the British dub poet and musician's career, and includes some of his fiercest lyrics, which chronicled incidents of police brutality and racial discrimination during the Thatcher years in a vibrant Jamaican dialect. Johnson is regarded as one of the U.K's most influential contemporary poets, and a voice for the disenfranchised. In the words of The Times, he's "a warrior wordsmith whose couplets take no prisoners."

 

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