Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 sparked a (sometimes heated) debate about whether song lyrics can be considered poetry or not. Although I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject, I tend to believe that song lyrics can be regarded as poetry, as long as they are intricate, profound and convey a stimulating meaning through the rhythmic qualities of the language. The difference seems to be that usually song lyrics are regarded as popular while poetry is considered to be erudite.
Some Portuguese artists and bands mixed the two concepts by setting to music the works of famous poets. The two cases that immediately sprang to mind were Fernando Pessoa and Florbela Espanca. But there may be more examples that I don’t know of.
Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) has had various of his poems used as song lyrics of diverse music genres – Jazz, Indie-Pop and Fado. Early this year, Salvador Sobral sang during a concert a song, Presságio (composed by Júlio Resende), whose lyrics are a poem by Fernando Pessoa.
Salvador Sobral is also the vocalist of the band Alexander Search, named after one of the many Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms. The elements of the band, inspired by the concept of heteronyms, adopted new names for the project, which sets to music the poems originally written in English by Alexander Search. A Day of Sun was their first single.
I love the things that children love
Yet with a comprehension deep
That lifts my pining soul above
Those in which life as yet doth sleep.
All things that simple are and bright,
Unnoticed unto keen‑worn wit,
With a child’s natural delight
That makes me proudly weep at it.
I love the sun with personal glee,
The air as if I could embrace
Its wideness with my soul and be
A drunkard by expense of gaze.
I love the heavens with a joy
That makes me wonder at my soul,
It is a pleasure nought can cloy,
A thrilling I cannot control.
So stretched out here let me lie
Before the sun that soaks me up,
And let me gloriously die
Drinking too deep of living’s cup;
Be swallowed of the sun and spread
Over the infinite expanse,
Dissolved, like a drop of dew dead
Lost in a super‑normal trance;
Lost in impersonal consciousness
And mingling in all life become
A selfless part of Force and Stress
And have a universal home;
And in a strange way undefined
Lose in the one and living Whole
The limit that I call my mind,
The bounded thing I call my soul.
Alexander Search (Fernando Pessoa)
In a completely different music genre, a poem by Fernando Pessoa was used as the lyrics of the song Cavaleiro Monge interpreted by Mariza, who sings mainly Fado, a traditional Portuguese music genre characterised by mournful tunes (although there are also a few songs with cheerful melodies).
Other Portuguese poet who has had one of her poems used as lyrics for a song is Florbela Espanca (1894–1930). Ser Poeta, a poem about love and poetry, was set to music by the band Trovante in 1987, and it’s still one of their most well-known songs. I chose the video below because it’s a live performance of the song where you can listen to thousands of people singing along, and there aren’t that many poems that so many people know off by heart.
Do you know any other artists, wherever they are from, who have set to music poems by famous writers? Tell me in the comments!