Under the spell of verse, alliteration, rhyming and rhythm, musicians have long been enchanted by the masterminds behind poetry. Whether it be the mention of a poet’s name, appropriation of lines from their works, or some other tribute, literary references pervade many bands’ lyrics. It’s always inspiring to hear how one artist’s work can open the doors to creativity across other art forms, so throw on your headphones and dig out those poetry anthologies as we recount some killer music that was influenced by the likes of Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, and John Donne.
Noah and the Whale — “Life Is Life” Poet: Charles Bukowski
The booze-soaked, overtly sexual poet and novelist has inspired many an artist, including British folk-pop outfit Noah and the Whale. The Charlie Fink-fronted band’s latest album title pays homage to Bukowski’s collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems, while this uplifting tune’s name and lyrics reference his poem “The Laughing Heart.”
Sufjan Stevens — “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” Poet: Carl Sandburg
When creating a concept album centered around Illinois, what better poet to reference than the state’s very own, free-verse-favoring Carl Sandburg? The three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s works — and his poem “Chicago” in particular — clearly struck a chord with Stevens. In the lush tune, the musician is visited by Sandburg’s spirit, and amid weeping violins he sweetly sings, “I cried myself to sleep last night, and the ghost of Carl, he approached my window. I was hypnotized. I was asked to improvise on the attitude, the regret, of a thousand centuries of death.”
Ra Ra Riot — “Dying Is Fine” Poet: e.e. cummings
Not only did this Syracuse-based indie-pop band borrow the title of e.e. cumming’s poem “dying is fine) but Death,” but they also incorporated the poet’s words into their chorus, joyfully singing: “Death, oh baby. You know that dying is fine, but maybe I wouldn’t like death if death were good. Not even if death were good.”
Bright Eyes — “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)” Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
If you’re acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe’s gorgeous yet gloomy poem “Annabel Lee,” then you’ll recognize a familiar line in this Bright Eyes-penned song. Nodding towards the tenebrous American Romantic, Oberst bellows out “To love and to be loved” the only way he knows how — in that infamous, earnest tone.
Regina Spektor — “Apres Moi” Poet: Boris Pasternak
The New York City songstress references her Russian background by weaving lines from the Nobel Prize-winning Pasternak into this menacing cut off of Begin To Hope. The author best known for writing Doctor Zhivago was also a master of poems that flowed in a lyrical rhythm. And while we’re unsure of what exactly Regina is singing — she utters the Pasternak quotes in Russian — it’s safe to say that his words add a layer of depth to the powerful tune.
The Beatles — “Golden Slumbers” Poet: Thomas Dekker
The legendary lads from Liverpool whipped up a short but sweet ode to Thomas Dekker’s love poem “Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes” with this darling piano-backed take from 1969 that is remarkably similar to the work that originally influenced it.
M. Ward — “Blake’s View” Poet: William Blake
Somber, yet slightly hopeful, this song by the Portland-stationed singer-songwriter and She & Him guitarist references William Blake and his poem series “Nurse’s Home” with afterlife-obsessed lyrics sung in a weathered, whispery tone.
The Smiths — “Cemetery Gates” Poet: John Keats, W.B. Yeats, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde
Always up for a literary reference, our favorite asexual sad-sack and outspoken animal-rights activist alludes to not one, not two, but four of the English language’s most beloved and inspiring poets in this sunny-day-dreading tune. In lyrics that take a stand against plagiarism, Moz drops the names of Yeats, Keats, and Wilde, while making an example of a friend who tries to rip off the line “Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn,” from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III.
Camera Obscura — “I Love My Jean” and “A Red, Red Rose” Poet: Robert Burns
Back in 2005, angelic-voiced Tracyanne Campbell and company released the “I Love My Jean” single — a melodic compilation featuring two songs that pay respect to Scottish poet Robert Burns. In adorable Camera Obscura fashion, the troupe put their own musical spin on his poems, lending diverse, mellifluous orchestrations to his romantic works.
Ryan Adams — “Sylvia Plath” Poet: Sylvia Plath
Hinting at moments in the tragic poet and author’s life — like her failed suicide attempt, in which she took sleeping pills and laid in a basement crawl space — with lines like “The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week,” and her honeymoon in France with her philandering husband, the poet Ted Huges, the alt-country singer-songwriter’s gorgeous piano-backed song wistfully fantasizes about having a girl like Ms. Plath to call his own. Which, come to think of it, is kind of a creepy thing to want.
Vic Chesnutt — “Stevie Smith” Poet: Florence Margaret Smith, aka Stevie Smith
Incorporating a sample of the lauded English poet speaking, the late Chesnutt pays homage to Smith’s meditation on life and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.” The song is fittingly simple, composed of a softly played banjo and a somber violin cushioning sweetly sung vocal harmonies that retell Smith’s depressing poem.
The Cure — “How Beautiful You Are” Poet: Charles Baudelaire
The reliably eccentric Robert Smith channeled French Romantic Charles Baudelaire in this lovely, Paris-evoking cut from 1987. The accordion-peppered Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me tune is composed of lyrics closely resembling the poem, “Les Yeux du Pauvre,” in which two lovers are incompatible because they don’t see eye to eye.
Okkervil River — “John Allyn Smith Sails” Poet: John Berryman
The Dream Songs poet John Berryman’s suicide greatly impacted Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff when creating the Austin group’s album, The Stage Names. Not only did he revel in the troubled writer’s works, but he even visited the Washington Avenue Bridge, where Berryman lost his life in January of 1972. So, it should come as no surprise that this melodious song coyly makes note of that fateful experience with ambiguous vocal harmonies and lyrics that seem to empathize with Berryman’s decision.
mewithoutYou — “Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt” Poet: John Donne
While the song title tips its hat to the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the lyrics in this eerily beautiful, spoken word number were founded on the 17th-century metaphysical poet John Donne’s paean to a soulmate, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”