It’s National Poetry Day! To celebrate, we’ve trawled through our favourite artists’ best wordplay to find actual poetry they’ve fused with their lyrics. From Arctic Monkeys messing about with John Cooper Clarke to Lana Del Rey’s obsession with Walt Whitman, here are our picks of the poetic bunch.
1. ‘I WANNA BE YOURS’ – ARCTIC MONKEYS
English punk poet John Cooper Clarke had his entire poem adapted and set to music by the Arctics to round off their latest album, 2013’s ‘AM’. It’s a wedding favourite, but Alex Turner and co add their own gloomy, melancholic spin. Clarke said of Turner, “I think he’s a fantastic lyricist. He’s always changing, and as a band they won’t be pinned down.” They have his blessing, then.
2. ‘DYING IS FINE’ – RA RA RIOT
New York indie quintet Ra Ra Riot suffered a tragedy when their 23-year-old drummer John Pike died in 2007. The band carried on, and released their debut album ‘The Rhumb Line’ the following year. This track takes a line from modern poet e e cummings’ ‘dying is fine)but death’. “I wouldn’t like death even if death were good“, becomes the song’s bitter refrain.
3. ‘BODY ELECTRIC’ – LANA DEL REY
The cosmic cut from Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die – Paradise Edition’ is inspired by 19th century American poet Walt Whitman and his ‘I Sing The Body Electric’. In fact, she says “Whitman’s my daddy” in the lyrics. Whitman’s poem cleanly examines the link between body and soul; Lana’s song is desire as apocalypse. It’s a satisfying leap.
4. ‘CUCURUCU’ – NICK MULVEY
Once a hang-drummer for experimental jazz outfit Portico Quartet, Mulvey’s now a Mercury-nominated multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist. He supplements DH Lawrence’s very English ‘Piano’ with a lullaby-like noise, the titular ‘Cucurucu’. Lawrence’s poem is about music’s power to provoke crippling nostalgia; in setting it to music Mulvey does it a meta kind of justice.
5. ‘NOT TO TOUCH THE EARTH’ – THE DOORS
This one is actually by Doors frontman Jim Morrison, but it was originally part of his poem ‘The Celebration Of The Lizard’. This song is the only part of its 133 lines that made it onto their 1968 record ‘Waiting For The Sun’, although it’s printed in full on its album sleeve.
6. ‘STAGGER LEE’ – NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
Nick Cave’s version of this folk song is from a book found by drummer Jim Sclavunos. The poem was in The Life, which Sclavunos described as “a collection of black hustler prison poetry. I pointed out an old really nasty version of ‘Stagger Lee’, and he got quite excited. Just a few minutes later, we piled into the live room, and recorded the song, fully realized, totally off-the-cuff, in one take”. Needless to say, it’s a visceral take on the story of American criminal ‘Stagger’ Lee Shelton, who shot dead his rival William Lyons on Christmas Day, 1895.
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7. ‘THE FIRST DAYS OF SPRING’ – NOAH AND THE WHALE
Twickenham’s indie-folk five-piece, who split up a few years back, took inspiration almost exclusively from poetry on their third album, ‘Last Night On Earth’ – a reference in itself to Charles Bukowski – but their most poignant use of poetry is in breakup-recovery album ‘The First Days Of Spring’. On its title track, frontman Charlie Fink said, “The poem ‘The Waste Land’ by TS Eliot was a particular inspiration. And I love nature – it’s the ultimate in unrequited love. I am constantly in awe of its near-infinite beauty and yet it will only ever have complete indifference for me.”
8. ‘OVERGROWN’ – JAMES BLAKE
An encounter with Joni Mitchell and her wise words made James Blake consider how to craft a long-lasting career for himself. ‘Overgrown’ sees him reference Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘All Overgrown by Cunning Moss’, which mourns the death of Charlotte Brontë, in his ruminations on the possibility of longevity. The album it’s named after won him a Mercury Prize.
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9. ‘RICHARD CORY’ – SIMON AND GARFUNKEL
This one’s very similar to a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, about a man whom people envy, and who seems happy on the surface, but who ultimately commits suicide. The only significant change made is at the end – Robinson’s version ends with Cory’s death; Simon And Garfunkel’s presents the people around Cory still wanting to be like him after the fact, having learnt nothing.
10. ‘IF’ – JONI MITCHELL
But for the few synths, the final track from the Canadian’s 2007 album ‘Shine’ could almost be taken straight from her 1975 album ‘Hissing Of The Summer Lawns’ – it’s a trumpet-laden, jazzy take on Rudyard Kipling’s wise-words poem ‘If’. But then you hear Mitchell’s aged, smoking-ravaged voice, and you know two things: you’re definitely in 2007, and Mitchell’s definitely of an age where such unabashed moralising is totally appropriate.
11. ‘BEYOND HERE LIES NOTHIN” – BOB DYLAN
Another later-in-life song here – and used by True Blood of all things – Dylan’s inspiration is perhaps the oldest of the lot. He’s gone for Ovid, the Roman poet who was exiled by Augustus in 8AD to modern Romania, and who commented of the region, “ulterior nulli, quam mihi, terra data est”. That’s pretty much “beyond here lies nothing” – he was miserable there – so it’s safe to say he probably would have approved of Dylan’s bluesy licks and gritty vocals.
12. ‘GOLDEN SLUMBERS’ – THE BEATLES
Part of the epic closing sequence on ‘Abbey Road’ is this adaptation of a poem by Thomas Dekker, ‘Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes’ from the 17th century. The only real difference is the replacement of “wantons” for “darlings“. And The Beatles’ unbeatable melodies, obviously.
13. ‘I ZIMBRA’ – TALKING HEADS
Yes, it sounds like nonsense, but this is based on German Dadaist poet Hugo Ball’s poem ‘Gadji Beri Bimba’. It doesn’t actually mean anything, which is kind of the point.
14. ‘ION SQUARE’ – BLOC PARTY
E.E. Cummings’ ‘I Carry Your Heart With Me(I Carry It In]’ is the inspiration and chorus for Bloc Party’s ‘Ion Square’. This is ‘Intimacy”s widescreen closing track, and it’s about the steady warmth of romantic stability. Or as Kele Okereke, the band’s frontman, says, “It’s just about being in love with someone and the bad stuff having not appeared yet on the horizon.” Bit negative.
15. ‘HOW BEAUTIFUL YOU ARE’ – THE CURE
This lightly adapted version of French poet Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Eyes Of The Poor’ appeared on The Cure’s 1987 album ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’. Frontman Robert Smith had already written a song on this theme – close people having very different, very telling reactions to something significant – but scrapped his own words in favour of Baudelaire’s immediate, event-specific narrative.