Peter Hammill - The Lyric
(The following is the prologue to a recent book of lyrics that came out in Spain.)

I don't know... the song is the song. It says too little, it shows too much. Enough.

Difficult, what are the values of the lyric which distinguish it from poetry per se? What are its particular virtues, andwhat should one look for in it?

In a certain sense, a lyric is much more disposable than a poem, since it passes to the ears and across the consciousness along with the music. It's obvious that the symbiosis between music and word is crucial in this regard. While one naturally wants a lyric to stand up in its own right as written / spoken words (in exactly the same way one looks to music to be discretely successful), it only really lives when it is sung. Thus, the essential sound of the words is as crucial as the content. Sometimes the meaning of the two can be identical; at other times, a tension can be set up by using dissonant phonetics against tranquil sentiment. A similar ''confrontation'' can also be created between words and the music with which they are inextricably entwined. These contradictions colour the overall ''meaning'' of the piece. A song lyric therefore has ''help'' in achieving its emotional or intellectual aims which a poem does not; conversely, of course, there are certain qualifications which must be met when composing a lyric which do not exist in the writing of poetry... the absolute definition of tune as word-matrix for one. Although I myself have an abhorrence for the repetition of choruses, and often insert changes both in words and music to them, nonetheless fundamental distinctions remain between the functions of verses, ''middles'', and choruses. The use of repetition in a poem is a device; in a lyric it is often an essential part of the form. Some lyrics are successful while consisting almost entirely of choruses... as long as they are fully unified with or called for by the music a mantra effect can be achieved; this may be banal on paper, but have great power when sung. In short, it's my belief that a lyric's existence is only full when taken in conjunction with its tune... but naturally the lyric should also be able to make ''sense'' when taken on its own.

Ultimately, though, what is this ''sense,'' or is there, indeed, any one ''sense'' to be had? As a form, the song has extremely open-ended potential, perhaps even more than poetry as such, albeit in different areas. Because music has an emotional significance of its own - and, as I've said, this significance can either be enhanced or contradicted by the words - a framework is set the moment the introductory notes are played. (To some extent the introductory notes are played even in the mind of the reader, if he or she knows the song well...) A song - at least in my view - should not be didactic... there should be ''holes'' in it, into which the listener can insert his own comprehension and experience. Of course, this also applies to poetry, as to all other art forms, but since the song operates on (at least) two distinct levels, the interstices are wider. Thus, for me, there is no one true ''meaning'' for any song, but as many as there are listeners; to put it another way, a song properly written should speak truths which can be in diametrically opposed ways by different people. These truths should also be such that they cannot be easily stated in more direct forms; a lyric must need to be written, or there can be no song.

Surprise should always be an element in a song, as should a degree of uncertainty, doubt, or question. On the other hand, although one wants to find something new in a song, there must also be a correspondence with what is already known, even if it is only intuitively. In my view, one should not be left at the end of a song thinking ''it's just like that,'' but rather ''sometimes it's like that.'' Naturally, these criteria also apply to poetry; songs, though, are subject to greater strains of repetition than verse. This ''that'' may change on different listenings for the audience or, indeed, performances for the singer, who must be able to continue finding freshness in a lyric through many renditions. A regularly taken journey is never the same - season, weather, and state of life always throw a different cast on what one sees - and my feeling is that songs should be small journeys. Perhaps one visits poems, commutes with songs.

As a form, and excluding for a moment the (essential) interaction with music, the lyric is probably closer to the short story (proposition / scene-setting; explanation / enhancement; conclusion / twist) than the poem... the tone which the latter must create to be successful is provided by the music in the case of a song. Or maybe there is something of the screenplay about a lyric - the actual medium in which character and event are ultimately delineated is not simply the written word.

I find other arguments straining within me. Is this not all too much? The lyric is, after all, to be hummed rather more than analysed. For most people, only the repetition of the chorus will impart the sense of the song. Thus all parts of the song must be present in each individual part so a degree of homogeneity is called for, however ''clever'' one wants to be. For myself, a large part of that homogeneity exists in the conflicting currents of phonetics (sometimes even across languages), meanings, and simple word-play, which can reveal a central identity not necessarily apparent on the surface of meaning. Lyrics can be games as much as creeds, snapshots as much as portraits... and sometimes the cartoon speaks more strongly than the painting. This speaks for at least a poetic sensibility in my own approach to lyric writing.

Myself, I know I have a tendency to over-analyse what is at heart a near-conversational form... although naturally it's important that I should apply all my faculties as best I can to writing lyrics, since this is what I do. I remain deeply enamoured of The Song for its potential to speak about all areas of experience, with a directly human (emotional/cerebral) voice. On the other hand, each song is only a voice on the wind... sung, and echoing off the hills, perhaps it reaches the heart more than the mind.

Inevitably, I suppose, I feel I have rambled somewhat. I hope that I've imparted something of my sense that songs are transitory things, for the moment; that they can give something of the universal, but should not be ''read as gospel,'' however serious their intent. Each lyric, as each song, will have a particular resonance at a particular time and place... depending on the empathy between its journey and one's own. This it has in common with poetry (and other forms); but, in my view at least, they are very different disciplines.

I don't know... the song is the song. It says too little, it shows too much. Enough.

Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko, 1998-2024