I want to propose a new analytical mode, one that can be used to contextualize the work of musicians and other artists. In the right hands, it might even extend beyond art.
There are poets and there are composers.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a framework, or a lens. This new framework has to do with how a given artist approaches their work. In a way, it’s simply about their strategies for producing art and relationship to art making. In another way, it’s an inherent, spiritual quality—housed somewhere between the body and the note. You are born as a poet or a composer.
At the very least, I have found this framework to be endlessly generative.
Poets move from the chest. Poets close their eyes when they sing. Poets tend toward the opaque. Poets are red. Poets think in pictures. Poets begin from above. Meaning is central for the poet. Poets create for a greater poetry. The poetry mortals can only kiss but never hold.
Composers move from the head or feet, as a rule. Composers say exactly what they mean. Composers are blue. Composers don’t aim to touch the untouchable, although they ideally do so. Composers think spatially: in shapes and figures; maybe places at maximum fluff. Composers can be formalists. Composers build concretely, tangibly––from the foundation up. Meaning is considered last by the composer. Crucially, in their work, they are serving the demands of the instrument and the composition.
The system works best as a point of departure. Like any good dichotomy, it is also a paradox. The moment it falls apart is the moment this idea has fully served its function. Those who are primarily poets also require a composer’s sense of rhythm to scaffold their poetry. Those who are primarily composers need a sense of poetic spirit to move the listener.
By this logic, the best in either category propel themselves to transcendence by challenging their own proclivities and taking on as many qualities and strategies of the opposite camp as possible. For the best artists, it’s nearly impossible for an outsider to parse which was their inherent quality and which was the one they learned so well it became just as close to their practice as the first. This is a rare kind of mastery.
Some artists don’t fit squarely into either category. When an artist breaks the poet-composer paradigm, or doesn’t easily fit in one or the other, they have accomplished something important.
Bear in mind, these categories are not so literal. The best poet may not use any words (John Cage playing 4’33”). Even some practitioners of poetry are composers (concrete poets, or W.H. Auden).
At its most simple, I only want to argue this: a poet and a composer could play the exact same pitch, even alike in timbre, and they would still sound different.
A list of some poets: John Lennon, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Zvuki Mu, Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith, Viktor Tsoi, J Balvin, Victor Jara, Avril Lavigne, David Berman, Billie Holiday, Clarice Lispector, Agnès Varda, Susan Sontag.
A list of some composers: Paul McCartney, Björk, Tim Maia, Elis Regina, Marcos Valle, ARTHUR, Arthur Russell, Grimes, Mac DeMarco, Minnie Riperton, Mark Fisher, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, John Berger.
Fiona Apple is, to me, a prime example of a poet. Her compositions are strong, but ultimately unrevolutionary. It is the poetic spirit in her work that makes it remarkable. Her songs exist to serve words and ideas she can barely contain, ones she restlessly cleanses herself of. Her strongest compositional moments are achieved via her poetic nature: On Fetch the Bolt Cutters she plays her dead dog’s bones as an instrument.
The Czech animator and surrealist Jan Svankmajer once said the greatest lesson he learned from surrealism was that “there is one kind of poetry—it doesn’t matter what means we choose to grasp it.” When Apple plays, although this is not to put her musical abilities into question by any means, it is almost as though it didn’t have to be a song.
Maybe the distinction really being made between poets and composers (in the musical case), is that composers need to be musicians, while poets choose music, to grasp at this greater poetry. Poets use music to realize their poetry because they happen to have chosen it out of many possible tools.
Conversely, someone like Arthur Russell is ultimately a composer. And Russell composes with poetic inclination––a tough case. Ultimately, the determining factor in this paradigm, providing unwavering resolution, is whether the artist serves the poetry or the composition in their work.
Russell is the composition’s laborer, and not only due to his genre experimentation. Even in poetic flourishes such as those on World of Echo, Russell never ceases to drive his form forward, and to remain grounded in it. In his vocal delivery of lyrics on the album, he renders them instruments. On “Answer Me” he sings:
Calling your goodbye with the safest words to
Words to use to tell me.1
The repeated “words” might as well be in different languages from one another, his intonation and even the length of the same word changes with each delivery. The underlying sentiments, while beautiful, are palpably secondary. The “words” know themselves to be notes first.
Cinema might require an adaptation of the framework. It would be easiest to assign the script to the poetic realm and the visual, world-making to the compositional. But this is not quite right.
To address this art form is to uncover another tension in “poets and composers.” Is it the case that we can only consider the work of auteurs (and their equivalents across mediums)? It is certainly the case that these are the individuals whose artistic approach is most knowable to their audiences. An auteur shares their vision of the world so wholly and soulfully that a follower can’t help but take on some component of it. With an auteur, their poet or composer status is easily uncovered.
Between Agnès Varda and Jean Luc Godard: Varda is the poet, and Godard the composer. Varda’s swan song Beaches of Agnes, opens with mirrors delicately strewn on a beach. “In each person is a landscape” she narrates, “if you opened me up there would be beaches.”2 She brings the viewer along through bright reenactments––literal and metaphoric—of life events. This is interspersed with a flow of self-made supercuts of her own oeuvre. The film ends with a return to the beach. All her immediate family members: children and grandchildren, dressed in white, dance with her in the heartwarming golden light of left-bank optimism.
Godard once said all you need for a film is a girl and a gun. His concerns are ultimately material, earthly.
David Lynch is a composer, because his poetry never leaves the embodied state: heavenless, and entrenched in his beloved subconscious realm. His wavy, heavy-toned symbolism lands as poetics, but is a means to attain his aesthetic and formal goals.
Wes Anderson’s genius is in his accurate yet fantastic world-making. At his best his dialogues and story suit the precise and wry setting. At his worst it’s beyond obvious to the viewer that the words and stories exist only to serve the divinely obtained visual, and in a way that breaks suspended disbelief.
One can understand an artist who isn’t an auteur, of course. It merely requires some additional work to enter the artist’s mindset and posture.
Four of us are in the car, on the way to an easy hike.
We attempt aux-cord democracy.
Sam explains Lil’ Peep; the other Sam requests Joe Dassin.
I play Zhanna Aguzarova’s “In My City.”
Everyone agrees that her voice is insane. She growls on a downbeat in one line, and flies to a high screech in the next. Her adlibs and embellishments are the most memorable elements. Luckily, they take up most of the performance.
I mention that she is another kind of insane, too. This must account for her incredibly free performance style.
“Do you like Björk? This kind of sounds like her.” The first Sam asks me.
“Yeah, I do . . . but I don’t think they sound that close to each other” I reply.
He responds with some astutely noted similarities. Björk has made similar noises throughout her career. The two both have a wavering, unsteady vocal color.
“I agree with all of that, but for me, Björk comes much more from the head.” I point to the car’s speaker, “this is chest.”
“In terms of the voice or—?”
“BOTH!” I interrupt, leaving the second possibility unnamed.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean by that . . .”
In considering the poet-composer paradigm, the following dichotomies also apply: poetry and prose, the image and the construction, sky and earth, designer and engineer.
I fear now that I’ve steered us astray. There is an important question that has gone unaddressed. Who is the poet-composer dichotomy for?
Is it the case that this framework should only serve audiences and critics, or “readers,” of a given work? This would mean the framework is not applied by artists on themselves, or simply wouldn’t be relevant to them. It’s hard to see yourself. It’s much easier to tell someone else what they are than to self-categorize.
Or do the greatest artists consciously navigate these realms, probably using different terms? Can they? Should they?
In Theory of Prose Viktor Shklovsky writes, “Many still believe, then, that thinking in images is the chief characteristic of poetry. . . . But we find that images change little; from century to century, from nation to nation, from poet to poet, they flow on without changing. Images belong to no one: they are ‘the Lord’s.’”3 The poet, then, is the artist who faces upward, aiming to locate and harness those eternal images. From Shklovsky’s analysis I learn to consider the prose-poetry dichotomy as a predecessor to poets and composers.
“Poetic imagery is but one of the devices of poetic language. Prose imagery is a means of abstraction” he continues.4 In the earlier Arthur Russell example, we might now say that Russell’s use of imagery and language is actually prosaic: abstraction rather than metaphor.
Poetry is language transcending language. A poet has an inherent (but surmountable) separation from the concrete and therefore technical approaches.
For Plato there was an “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (sometimes interpreted as rhetoric and poetry).5 He ultimately sided, of course, with the rhetorical, logical, reasonable. The poets are to be banished from his ideal Republic, they wield their corruptive powers unreasonably via irrational and divinely obtained images. In other words, poetry is too powerful.
Composers are harder for me to pin down or describe, out of the two. I tend to believe in everyone’s poeticism. I know a few composers. Even at the closest thing we have to understanding, when we speak about music, I feel like our words hover about an inch from each other, never intertwining.
Although poets can be accused of opacity, it is composers who regularly deal with the opaque. It is much murkier to deal totally in the intangibility of music.
For them the emotional is secondary, if considered at all. An absurdity is that this makes for an even more honest poetry, if done right. Not aiming to create a poem can be the purest way to come to one. Passion can sing through in just the right places, uncalculated.
An interesting obstacle I’ve encountered is that of circumstance. Can it be that depending on the point of comparison, someone can contextually be a poet or composer? There is the case of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for example. Within the Beatles, in comparison, say, to Paul, John is unmistakably a poet. Between John and Yoko, however, it is Yoko who is the bigger poet. (Although she has a composer’s approach to form.) This renders John the composer between them. It seems possible that it is Yoko who opened John’s eyes to the poetic approach. In their joint efforts at least, their goal is clearly to convey a specific image: a world at peace, childish play, everything in simple black and white with a bold face font.
If we reground ourselves in the previous conclusion that the artist’s goal is the ultimate categoric tell, then Lennon is categorically a poet.
Another point of circumstantial contention: Can an artist be a poet at one phase of their oeuvre and composer at another? My impulse is to say yes, but to also propose that the mid-career crossover is rarer than one might think. The switch can only occur with a total rethinking of one’s artistic approach, perhaps even selfhood.
We can turn to the classics, here, to regain our footing. I want to reestablish that these categories are not determined by whether an artist is good with words or not; nor whether lyrics accompany the melody in their songs.
Beethoven’s third symphony was originally titled “Bonaparte,” after Napoleon. He wrote with this subject in mind, and with spirit driving him. It was a tribute to a revolutionary figure. Later disillusioned, when Napoleon was revealed to him as yet another self-congratulating establishment demagogue, he gave it the emptier name, “Eroica.” His C.V. might have read composer, but this is a poet in tumult.
By a similar metric, one might also consider Wagner to be a poet. He too, infamously wrote his music beginning from the spirit or image.
What better counterexample, of an artist grounded unwaveringly in form, is there other than Rachmaninoff? The hubristic dexterity in his pieces, his soloist’s mentality––both are not inherent composer’s qualities, but I sense they might be common among his kind. Does the work of “composers,” then, stem from a oneness with the instrument? Rachmaninoff was the total master of his. There is no God, no external other, in a Rachmaninoff concerto: only the piano. They move the listener, but from the formal plane. The resultant audience emotion stems originally from witnessing such virtuosity. And what to make of his eventual near total abandonment of composing at the end of his life, when he preferred to be known as a concert pianist?
Is Plato the ideal composer? Banishing the corrupted and corrupting poets from his Republic.
Is Aristotle, then, the correspondent poet? His matrix of virtues and vices in Nicomachean Ethics lands as poetry: Pleasure in excess is self-indulgence, in deficiency its insensibility.
These have been idealized delineations, caricatures. In truth, an artist will stray from their category: in fact, this is essential to their hard-won title.
Poet-first artists and composer-first artists keep each other in some kind of cosmic balance. Each fills a different need.
It is the artist, however, who stands to gain the most if they can locate within themselves the inner composer and inner poet at once.
- “Answer Me,” track 3 on Arthur Russell, World of Echo, Audika Records, 1986.
- Beaches of Agnès, dir. Agnès Varda, The Cinema Guild, 2008.
- Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, Translated by Benjamin Scher (Dalkey Archive Press, 1990).
- Shklovsky, Theory of Prose.
- Plato, The Republic, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 607b5–6.