Shining Out in the Wild Silence: Writing in the Space Between Poetry and Music

I'm gonna shine out in the wild silence / and spurn the sin of giving in [...] / I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness / and hold the world to its word

—David Berman, from “The Wild Kindness”

It’s the seminal question: where does one art form end and another one begin? The more I grow as a writer and a reader, the more I find myself occupied by this internal debate. Sometimes I catch myself typing a phrase or an image into my phone’s notes, only to gaze at it later trying and failing to decipher what kind of form and genre this stray thought might germinate. I repeatedly seek out these first moments of inspiration, when the idea comes not from generality but specificity, when genre does not yet exist. It’s a liberating space, like the first few breaths one takes when stepping through the doors of a stuffy building into the quiet, cool day outside.

I find myself now more and more prolonging these moments of genrelessness: a few breaths in, filling my lungs with clarity, infusing me with the anticipation of something greater. There is a singular delight in creating before categorization, before certainties and differences define what it is exactly that you’re making. 

This near-illicit joy I inhale in such in-between spaces isn’t limited to my own creative work. It’s a joy that appears every time I read a creative nonfiction piece with such incredible imagery and resonance that a reader could interact with it as a prose poem instead of an autobiographical account. Every time I watch a dance routine in which the dance enhances the music accompanying it—the sound of bedecked feet stomping the ground in quick intervals adding a layer of real-time frantic energy and rhythm to the backing track. 

I won’t write poems unless they are an instruction manual, a bus / card, warm shea butter on elbows, water, a finger massage to the scalp, / a broomstick sometimes used for cleaning and sometimes / to soar.

— Jamila Woods, from “Blk Girl Art

So many of my favorite musicians creating today, unsurprisingly, are those whose lyrics feature evocative sensory images, who blur the line between genres and create new forms both in song and poetry. Names like Mitski, Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent come to mind—the experience of reading through the lyrics of their albums is often akin to reading a poetry chapbook. These artists all have vastly different styles of both instrumental and lyrical composition, yet there is no question that their songs strike the core, unusually perceptive and reflective.

In a wonderful Q&A with poet and songwriting expert Pat Pattison, Pattison lays out an interesting framework for comparison between the two art forms. He argues that the difference between lyrics and poetry lies in the fact that songs are generally created to be presented in audio format, while poems are generally created to be presented in visual format. Following this, certain poetic devices such as white space and enjambment are simply impossible to translate to the lyrical format, just as the true quality of some lyrics cannot be realized until they are set to music.

Despite these factors that ostensibly separate the two genres from each other, there is a whole host of artists with a knack for slipping right in between the chain links of that fence. Although people like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tupac, Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell are today known primarily as musicians, their poetic work is crucial to studying their broader artistic journey. From my experience of American society in particular, categorization is prized—when an artist works in a multitude of art forms, there is a push to slot them into just one rather than looking at their work as multifaceted and therefore not beholden to a specific artistic tradition. A tremendous loss takes place when we fall victim to this: a loss of nuance, of the potential that lies between defined genres.

the black hole of the window where you sleep / the night breeze carries something sweet / a peach tree / wild women don’t get the blues / but I find that / lately I’ve been crying like a tall child”

—Mitski, from “First Love / Late Spring”

When I think back to my first memories of writing poetry compared to writing song lyrics, I find that the consciousness of form and limitations is much more present in the former. As young children, poetry is often introduced to us in closed form—limericks, haikus. While these lessons familiarize us with important poetic devices early on, and pieces that rhyme or follow a tight structure can be easier to understand and connect with, poetry’s seeming rigidity did not much endear the art form to me as a child. I enjoyed writing it but I didn’t feel freely expressive when doing so; writing in the bounds of these forms felt like snapping together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle someone else had come up with, instead of drawing a new picture of my own. 

On the other hand, I found music changeable and open to my invention, more accessible to me, not bound to academic thinking. Of course, although I wasn’t consciously creating them, the songs I wrote in my younger years certainly followed a structure as well—some would be formatted in the style of the South Asian devotionals I grew up hearing, others more like the Western pop and rock songs I heard on the radio. Depending on which style I was following, the song’s content would change as well, but this felt to me a more natural process than counting syllables for a closed form poem—even if I was doing the same thing unknowingly when it came to finding rhythm in my songwriting.

It’s only now, as an adult, that free verse poetry has become abundant in my surroundings and my education. Opening my eyes to the limitless possibilities of free verse as I grew older has both changed my perception of poetry and given me a newfound appreciation for closed form. Indeed, a set structure doesn't necessarily have to detract from creativity—rather, it can provide a useful template to be adjusted according to your goal for the work. 

Songwriting remains an important part of my life, but as with Cohen and Mitchell, sometimes my music isn’t easily distinguishable from my poetry. The love I have for free-flowing exploration extends to songs, to the point where some of my poems could double as lyrics if set to music and vice versa. At times, I do feel that old push to categorize myself as a poet or a songwriter, but I believe the truest art, the truest form of creation, lies in pushing at the limits of genre lines and art forms. An intake of breath: stepping outside the walls we built for ourselves and into open air.