Perhaps, we cannot all master the bowing of violin, the plunking of piano, or even the fingering of guitar, each and all, secondary instruments yet, we each and all can sing, perhaps not as masterful as Pavarotti or Pink, yet we all have composed, in our imagination, songs; songs when children, and later, songs to familiar tunes, and sometimes, songs that seem to jump off the tongue when least anticipated. We all are musical by nature, we all have access to that first instrument of music, the human voice, silent or sounded.
We might imagine that songs exist by the invention of words; perhaps, songs existed before meaning in words, meaning the tune itself, alike the song of birds, the call of lamb, of frog, of wolf. We do know, that songs were sung some six millennia ago, Sumer, 4000 years before the Birth of Christ, and find them on clay tablets. We know of songs from many ancient cultures; we know and have on papyrus discovered the songs of Anacreon, those songs before democracy, performed at Athenian taverna, at symposia, and at court, on command, for the Peisistratid tyrants. The first song of record, complete in notation, comes to us engraved upon a small, marble stele, a tombstone that reads, “Seikilos placed me here, an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” And with this inscription, a dedication to Euterpe, the Muse of Music, and the lyric, with musical notation:
While you live shine forth
You will notice, even then, in Hellenistic Greece, the first Century of Christ, a quatrain. Briefly, let us return to a time in Greece five-hundred years before the Seiklios epitaph, a length of time as-long-as from this moment back to the discovery of America, and in this distance, find the genesis of our tradition in song. We might choose from the first, the Archaic, Lyric Poets, Sappho, or Pindar, or Alcman, Stesichorus or my favorite, Simonides, yet, let us choose Anacreon, because he is fun, and because his songs are with us, yet.
tell me why you turn and fly,
am blest with ample wit
now 'tis yet the meadow free
translated by Walter Headlam, with variation
With little imagination, we can see Paul McCartney adding a three-line “Chorus” after each stanza—well, if not McCartney, Ben Johnson—a chorus which reflects, which changes and concludes the lyric’s course and the poem’s meaning.
What? Is it fright that makes you run,
Often, songs will grow over time, as in Medieval English ballads, as in popular songs mocked or misunderstood, as in our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” which was adapted to the meter and the tune of “Anacreon in Heav’n”.
The lyrics of Anacreon were intended to be sung accompanied by the kithara, on formal occasions, or the lyre, instruments not unlike the harp and guitar. It is from the lyre that our songs receive a name, “lyrics”, those songs of occasion, skolia (drinking songs), madrigals (love songs), chants (work songs), carols and psalms (hymns of joy). King David sang to the strings of a lyre his many, worshipful psalms:
Lord is my shepherd;
You will notice how lyrical songs create unity with variety, how things, words, phrases, breath, thought, and line, repeat, yet, with variation. The variations are almost numberless, yet, there are patterns of tradition suited to the moment and to the form; now, typically, the four musician, 32-bar (eight syllables in groups of four lines, echoed four times), an AABA stanzaic structure…ho-hum…which is, in truth, a traditional, tetrameter ballad. The current, modern vogue, these past hundred years, is as predictable as the waking sun. The form is:
1. A tune or snatch of introduction
2. Verse I -- to set the scene, begin the story
3. The Chorus -- a couplet or brief thought that summarizes the song
4. Verse II -- a development of thought or continuation of story
5. The Chorus -- repeated
6. The “Bridge” (in truth, Verse III) -- a change of thought, story, or meter to create contrast, excitement, anticipation of the final chorus
7. The Chorus -- here, the full meaning of the chorus revealed
8. A Coda -- the tune extended into crescendo, or simply a fade- away
This, the structure of the “Filly” song of Anacreon, moments ago adapted to the old fashioned, modern song form. You might like to know, that our song form derives from plays in ritual worship of Dionysus, Bacchus, the God of Wine and free-love. The inventor of these song plays, as much as any one person can be credited with invention, is, Thespis, from whom we derive the word, “thespian”, “actor”. In brief, before Thespis, the chorus alone in song worshiped Dionysus; Thespis inserted himself as single-speaking-actor which allowed a manner of conversation between actor and chorus (a group of singers), and from this, our verse and chorus structure, our tragedy and comedy, and much the rest of history. The origin of other words might be helpful to you in understanding song, lyric, poems and their use:
LYRIC, as mentioned, from the words composed in accompaniment of the lyre;
VERSE, a line or row, as in plowing or writing;
CHORUS, to dance in a circle…the chorus of a Greek tragedy would dance in formation, alike battle formation, turning and circling as the meaning and meter of the song changed direction; in this way of manly cooperation, learned in the chorus, the Greeks in battle defeated Persia, and one another.
You will notice the similarity of drama to lyric to sonnet in the structure of the syllogism, a thought tested in three parts; the syllogism, as you know, is a formula to offer proof, to arrive at conclusion, formed from the Greek, “syn”, to bring together to the mind, and “logos”, a reasoning, a reckoning. A sonnet, a three-part reasoning, reckons at the conclusion. The word, “sonnet”, means, “little song”.
Our lyrics, our little songs are musical, mathematical, deriving from Pythagoras and his discovery of a fact of the universe, the ratios of vibration, the frequency of notes upon a scale, low to high; ratio is the system for tuning the lyre, the guitar, the piano, and such other mathematical instruments of sound. Pythagoras understood that the universe was created in pattern, by law, spiritually, that all things are united in number, harmonically: “the small is to the large as the large is to the whole”, and taught it so. Paideia, the Athenian, the Greek process of education was linked in two parts, gymnastics and music, the healthy mind in the healthy body; this form of education created in youth the kalos kagathos, the gentleman, the lady, through which most all good in Western civilization ascends: a moral and physical refinement, beautiful and good in the music of the soul.
Likely, when composing, you will naturally, in imagination, employ harmony; by nature, you are likely to mathematically group syllables into forms of thought, stanza, little rooms, one thought following another in syllogism to conclusion. For guidance, various stanza from a few songs diverse in use, composed in recent centuries.
These, we know as, “COMMON METER” or “HYMN METER” for use in hymns,
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
auld lang syne, my jo,
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
This next, we know as, “SHORT METER”,
There's things that you guess
When writing lyrics, you are, by definition, writing poetry. The best, well formed, well rhymed verses are longest remembered, because they are beautiful. We all love beautiful things, in automobiles, in lamps, in people, in thoughts, in songs; we cherish, we care for beautiful things; we discard, we forget, we eschew the ugly, and the ugly decays and fades away. By health in our nature, we collect what is beautiful. A thought might be beautiful, yet, if the thought is not in beauty expressed when a thing, when a thing constructed in meter and rhyme, it will not attach to people, it will decay and fade away. I have known beautiful thoughts poorly constructed and watched them disappear. If you would like your thought, your words to last, make them beautiful to the ear.
Beautiful songs will survive war, destruction, they will outlast languages and empires; your little songs of love, of lust, of folly, of worship, can, if beautiful, if well-constructed, survive their music, survive your life, they can live in others, generation into generation, ad infinitum.
Here, three, simple lyrics that have survived the loss of empire:
were the morning star among the living,
lyric, possibly, Plato
translated from Percy Bysshe Shelley
a pretty baby lies
happy Rose, and interwove
Robert Herrick, translated into Modern English
Each language contains within itself characteristics of voice, of meter and accent, each language contains structures peculiar to itself, each language carries ideas, ideas that do not in full translate. The Greek, the Archaic and Classical Greek, “Attic Greek” – named for that area surrounding Athens, Attica – in structure invites dichotomy, the contrast, the contest between words and ideas. In Attic Greek, this contrast is known as agon, that competition in all things: footrace, battle, excellence of all sorts, including poetry. Then, poetry itself was competition, that striving for virtue which is the thing, arete, an achievement of excellence in all that is human, courage, wit, strength, song, et cetera. By arete the Greek achieved “eudemonia”, human flourishing, that moral excellence which makes “happiness” possible, that happiness described by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase, that from God comes the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Toward happiness, toward eudemonia, Greek youth was instructed in song, memory, meaning, and performance. You might like to know, that Greek poetry, before Hellenism, did not contain punctuation — which was not yet invented — that lines read-on, one into the other without stop: it was in the demos, oligarchic or democratic, expected that each person, each kalos kagatos, would know the shape and delivery of songs. In those days, songs were as common as by electricity now they are, there were popular songs and work songs and drinking songs and love songs and everyone was expected to know them all, as Sally Cook has poetically observed of memory then and song today, “Ten thousand songs and no one sings.”
Each language of each civilization, of each variation of civilization, has forms and traditions suited best to its structure of sound and sense. The God-like Greek was lyrically logical, strictly metrical; the Renaissance French was courtly, artificial, stylized, alike a polished gem adorning a crown, a thing different from the sea-polished shell gathered by the Greek poets. Of the many French forms, several have been adapted to English use — we have, after-all, not fully untangled our languages. Among the borrowed French forms, Rondel, Ballade, Villanelle and others, for courting, for use in love, we shall learn the Triolet; yet, I do not recommend the triolet for first dates…wait until the third, and do not deliver to the person you are courting, the first attempt: practice, achieve excellence, then present the gift of words in persuasion to your sweetheart.
The triolet is composed of tetrameter iambs, rhyming, ABaAabAB (the uppercase letters here representing a metrical line repeated in full, the lowercase letters representing variation in words that lead to a new, true rhyme). Two example will serve for all — the form is easily mastered in technique, easily fumbled in sentiment.
This first example is quick, trimeter, suitable to its subject:
kissed me to-day.
This second example is not truly French, but, by English form, vividly learns from the French.
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Though not composed for music, many musicians have put “Jenny Kiss’d Me” to song; so then, take heart: even should you lack knowledge of notation in music, some eager, sympathetic musician might set your lyrics to song.
Then, of song lyrics, when composing, keep in mind these guidelines:
Be honest and familiar;
Create drama with tension;
Elicit persuasive empathy;
Put the reader in the story, simply.
*"Lyric: Songs", excerpted from Occasional Poetry: How to Write Poems For Any Occasion (publication, December 18, 2019; online course, January `7, 2020)
Michael Curtis, whose poetry appears often in Expansive Poetry Online, is a classical sculptor, painter, and architect who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. His verses have been published in Candelabrum, Blue Unicorn, The New Formalist, The Lyric, American Arts Quarterly, Amphora, Pivot, and many other journals. His translation of Afrikaans verse, Land of Sunlight and Stars was published in 2012