Discover poet-lyricists: Artists embodying the relationship between words and music

By Stephanie Gemmell

As distinct art forms, poetry and lyrics remain inherently intertwined. While many artists focus their energies on one or the other, some poets and musicians naturally express themselves through both mediums. For these artists, the different facets of the creative process seem to energize one another, supporting the development of new creative approaches and enabling writers to cultivate their most open and authentic voices throughout their work.

To highlight songwriters whose work traverses and transcends the boundaries between lyrics and poetry, I chose 10 artists whose work reflects different musical genres, poetic themes, and personal perspectives. Organized in no particular order, these artists vary widely in terms of their creative career trajectories and their development as musicians. Many of these writers have powerfully influenced my creative process as a writer and composer, and I feel confident that the same is true for many others as well.

Despite their differences, all of these artists palpably demonstrate authenticity, honesty, and openness throughout their work, making their artistic contributions especially valuable. These creators also display courage through cultivating their own unique voices, reflected in the distinctive nature of their words and music. More than half of these artists have also produced visual art in a variety of formats, further embodying intersections across creative mediums.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen famously embarked on a musical career at the age of 33, having already published poetry collections and two novels. Despite his relatively late start in the music industry—or perhaps partly because of it—Cohen became an eminent singer-songwriter, releasing 14 studio albums between 1967 and 2016. Cohen’s fifteenth album, Thanks for the Dance, was also released posthumously in 2019.

The distinctive literary voice that Cohen cultivated throughout his life echoes through both his lyrics and his poetry, contributing to a powerful catalog of music as well as multiple poetry collections. Most recently, Cohen published Book of Longing in 2006, and it included his first published poetry since the publication of his collection Book of Mercy in 1984. Following Cohen’s death in 2016, The Flame, a collection of poems, drawings, and journal entries, was published in 2018.

In discussing his creative process, Cohen tended to emphasize the length of time he spent drafting and revising individual songs. “The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough,” Cohen explained in an interview. “Usually, I take a long, long time – partly because of an addiction to perfection, partly just sheer laziness.” Despite his self-effacing remarks about his unconventional creative process, it remains clear that Cohen’s writing approach worked for him, enabling him to bring meaningful and memorable songs and poems into being.

Cohen’s poetry and lyrics throughout his career frequently addressed existential and religious questions, reflecting Cohen’s personal thoughts and questions. Cohen’s song “You Want it Darker,” released in 2016, explores notions related to religious belief, struggle, and justice from Cohen’s perspective near the end of his life. Much of Cohen’s posthumously-published writing included in The Flame also involves these themes. In the foreword to his father’s last book, Adam Cohen writes that the book “was what [Leonard Cohen] was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.” Adam Cohen also notes, “my father, before he was anything else, was a poet,” and this reality remains evident in the varied writing that follows. Many of Cohen’s poems employ rhythmic rhyme schemes, but in the poem “My Career,” Cohen concisely writes, “So little to say / So urgent / to say it.” Similarly addressing themes related to his work and legacy, Cohen concludes another poem, “If I Took a Pill,” with the lines, “I am trying to finish / My shabby career / With a little truth / In the now and here.”

Alicia Keys

When Alicia Keys entered the music industry at the young age of 13, she quickly faced demeaning power differentials and struggled to maintain control over her work and creative process. However, Keys embodied artistic tenacity from a young age, retaining power and ownership over her music and her public persona. Following the release of her debut album Songs in A Minor in 2001, Keys has continued to write, perform, and produce music that reflects her own unique R&B sound.

Following the release of her sophomore studio album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, Keys published Tears for Water: Poetry and Lyrics in 2004. Like her music, the collection offers insights into her mindset and perspective, as well as her own personal creative process. In her introduction, Keys writes, “I know that any creative expression is destined to be subject to criticism, but this book is for me and all those who are on the search for freedom.” The poems that follow embody an authentic vulnerability and sincerity, honestly reflecting specific moments and revelations in Keys’ early career. Along with Keys’ poetry, Tears for Water also includes explanations of the poems’ origins and what they originally meant to her. 

In the poem “golden child” Keys writes, “Girl, you be smart / look in your heart and see what shines in you.” In her commentary, Keys explains how the poem reflects a shift in her internal mindset, writing, “I was forced to believe in myself and not in what others thought of me,” describing the moment captured in the poem as a turning point in her life. Directly addressing themes of self-doubt, uncertainty, and burgeoning artistic confidence, the poems included in this collection exhibit the creative courage that Keys has continued to cultivate over the past two decades. In addition to her poetry collection, the fifteen-time Grammy winner also released a memoir, More Myself: A Journey, in 2020.

Lana Del Rey

In an early interview, Lana Del Rey described that she selected her stage name as something that would guide the trajectory of her musical and creative process. Following the release of her breakthrough sophomore album Born to Die in 2012 at the age of 27, she has continued to create unique, authentic work that remains true to her voice. She released eight studio albums between 2010 and 2021, and her debut poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, was published in 2020.

In contrast to the rhythmic structure and rhyme scheme used in her music, the poetry in Del Rey’s collection tends to employ a free, stream of consciousness narrative approach. In the poem “SportCruiser,” Del Rey describes taking flight classes and sailing lessons, concluding, “All of this circumnavigating the earth / was to get back to my life / 6 trips to the moon for poetry to arise / I’m not a captain / I’m not a pilot / I write / I write.” 

Jim Morrison

After rapidly rising to fame as the frontman of The Doors in the late 1960s, Jim Morrison developed a reputation for his distinctive onstage theatrics and the descriptive, philosophical nature of his lyrics. After cofounding The Doors with keyboardist Ray Manzarek in 1965, Morrison recorded six studio albums with the band between 1967 and 1971. Morrison’s unique vocal style and offbeat lyrics gave life to songs ranging from “Riders on the Storm” and “When the Music’s Over” to “Moonlight Drive,” “Roadhouse Blues,” and “L.A. Woman.”

Following his sudden death in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27, Morrison remained a seminal figure in psychedelic rock, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 along with his bandmates from The Doors. But Morrison conceived of himself as a poet first and foremost, with his lyrics stemming from his original dedication to the craft of writing poetry.

Morrison wrote poetry and lyrics synchronously as a member of The Doors. He self-published two collections of poetry in 1969, later compiled in The Lords and the New Creatures. Many of Morrison’s poems, drafts, and journal entries have been published in posthumous collections, including Wilderness in 1988 and The American Night in 1990. Most recently, The Collected Works of Jim Morrison, published in 2021, contains nearly 600 pages of both published and previously unpublished work from throughout Morrison’s life, reflecting his development as an artist and individual.

The collection demonstrates the breadth of Morrison’s interests beyond the sides of him commonly known in pop culture, including vividly descriptive imagery, metaphysical concepts, and narrative poetry. The book also provides pictures from Morrison’s notebooks with poems in his own handwriting, showing elements of his drafting and revision process. Morrison’s poem “The Universe” reflects recurring themes of metaphysics and reptile imagery. Morrison writes, “The Universe, one line, is a / long snake, & we each are / facets on its jeweled skin.” 

Florence Welch

As the vocalist and primary songwriter for her band Florence + The Machine, Florence Welch found her breakthrough success in the music industry with the band’s debut album Lungs in 2009. Since then, Welch has released four more albums with the band in addition to collaborating with other musicians as a featured artist. Many of Welch’s original lyrics incorporate existential and religious themes from varying perspectives, and her poetry collection, Useless Magic, reflects similar concepts.

Published in 2018, Useless Magic includes lyrics from Welch’s first four albums, followed by poetry. In her preface, Welch explains, “I don’t know what makes a song a song and a poem a poem: they have started to bleed into each other at this stage.” In the poem “Monarch Butterflies,” Welch paradoxically writes, “I am afraid of things being written down / Confined to the page so permanent / There is an impermanence to song / It is fleeting and of the moment / Words grow wings.” 

John Lennon

As one of the preeminent songwriters of the twentieth century, John Lennon left a lasting musical and cultural legacy, impacting generations of musicians and creatives. It would be difficult to overstate Lennon’s influence as the founder of the Beatles, a solo singer-songwriter, and a prominent peace activist. But in addition to his well-known accomplishments and artistic pursuits, Lennon also published two successful books early in his career.

In His Own Write, published in 1964, includes poetry, short stories, and illustrations. The book has generally been classified as nonsense literature, featuring wordplay and anti-authority sentiments. Lennon published another book, A Spaniard in the Works, using a similar format of drawings and nonsensical short stories in 1965. Skywriting by Word of Mouth, published posthumously in 1986, includes more of Lennon’s miscellaneous writings, drawings, and cartoons. All three books reflect elements of Lennon’s background in visual art, including simple cartoons paired with his writing, stemming from his experiences and interests he originally developed as a young student.

Keaton Henson

Songwriter, composer, and visual artist Keaton Henson has paradoxically gained greater attention and recognition through his quietness. As a singer-songwriter, Henson scarcely performs due to anxiety, and themes related to mental health figure prominently in both his lyrics and instrumental scores. Henson’s vulnerable, deeply personal songwriting reveals an understated yet formidable artistic courage that finds expression throughout all of his work.

Henson launched his creative career as an illustrator and visual artist, designing album art for other musicians. Henson released his first music in 2010, after beginning to record original songs in his apartment without originally intending to release his music publicly. Since then, Henson has continued to consistently produce and release new music, sporadically performing his work live in concert. Henson also composed Six Lethargies, a 70-minute work for string orchestra, and the piece debuted in 2018.

Henson’s songwriting style reflects a poetic sensitivity to language, and he published a poetry collection, Idiot Verse, in 2015. The book illustrates Henson’s background both as a writer and visual artist, including poetry and sketches. Henson’s publisher describes the collection as drawing on “the tradition of Leonard Cohen and John Lennon,” and similarities in style and creative approach are present throughout the collection. In the final stanza of the book’s opening poem, Henson states, “I’ll write it out just as I see it / and just as it sounds in my heart / and pay no mind to those wasting their time / in confusing confusion with art.” 

Mike Posner

After releasing his debut album 31 Minutes to Takeoff in 2010 at the age of 22, Mike Posner quickly became known in pop culture for his singles “Cooler Than Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” Following his first album’s international success, Posner grappled with the pressures of fame and struggled with depression, leading him to focus on writing and producing for other artists rather than releasing new solo work.

In 2015, Posner released the original acoustic version of his song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” which was later remixed by SeeB into a chart-topping tropical house song. His 2016 album, At Night, Alone, included both versions of “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” along with “Be As You Are.” Both songs’ lyrics reflect a shift in artistic perspective, openness, and creative maturity that found similar expression in Posner’s 2017 poetry collection Tear Drops and Balloons. Posner has subsequently released two more albums and completed a walk across the United States in 2019, successfully walking more than 3,000 miles across the country after surviving a dangerous rattlesnake bite.

Joni Mitchell

Revered as a multidimensional songwriter whose extensive catalog of music transcends genres, Joni Mitchell has received nine Grammy Awards for her work and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Mitchell’s songwriting demonstrates a profound sensitivity and attentiveness to the power of language interconnected with rhythm. The poetry she has published throughout her career similarly reflects her talent for descriptive storytelling and her awareness of the interplay between sound and meaning in language.

Published in 1997,  Joni Mitchell: The Complete Poems and Lyrics, reflects the breadth of her writing up to that point in her career. More recently, Mitchell published Morning Glory on the Vine: Early Songs and Drawings in 2019, representing a reproduction of a book she originally gave to friends as a gift in 1971. The book contains her original lyrics along with paintings and drawings, offering authentic representations of her creative process and mindset in the early stages of her musical career. In “Woodstock,” Mitchell writes, “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” Mitchell’s poetry tends to reflect her attention to both rhythm and the inherent music of language. In“Cactus Tree,” she writes, “Now she rallies her defenses / For she fears that one will ask her / For eternity / And she’s too busy / Being free.”

Kurt Cobain

Known as the frontman, guitarist, and primary songwriter of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain left an indelible impression on the music industry and uniquely affected the development of alternative rock. Cobain released three studio albums with Nirvana, finding major commercial success through the release of the band’s sophomore album Nevermind in 1991, followed by In Utero in 1993. After Cobain’s tragic death by suicide at the age of 27 in 1994, his artistry has continued to powerfully impact other artists and musicians. Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 along with his Nirvana bandmates.

Many fans and admirers of Cobain would be unlikely to characterize him as a poet in the traditional sense, and he did not publish any poetry during his lifetime. But Kurt Cobain’s Journals, published posthumously in 2002, includes poetry he drafted, along with other lyrics and drawings from his personal notebooks. The unedited nature of the writing provides a clear glimpse into Cobian’s thought process and creative perspective.  In one entry, Cobain writes “I am threatened by ridicule… My emotions are affected by music. Punk rock means freedom. I use bits and pieces of others’ personalities to form my own.”

STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place ChapbookCapitol LettersThe Ekphrastic ReviewThe Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.