PJ Harvey: songwriter & poet

Poetry and song are entwined.

Historically the Greeks had two types of poetry: epic poetry such as Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, and lyric poetry which was a song accompanied by a lyre.

Ballads have been sung since the Middle Ages and are simply ‘story songs’, passed on from singer to singer. The ‘ballad stanza’ is a common verse structure (the quatrain or four-lines of alternating rhyme) present in both poetry and song lyrics. Interestingly, many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are in ballad form, although her influence is said to be that of the hymn with its similar meter.

Lyrics and music are bound by rhythm - beats. Rhythm and movement go hand in hand, hence the notion of ‘measure’ or ‘meter’ in poetry.

Some argue for a distinction between songs and poetry, with an emphasis on poetry being printed and self-contained as an internal dialogue, while songs require voice and performance to be fully realised. Bob Dylan is often called a poet, but he’s remarked: ‘Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.’ Yet it can be said that the roots, structure and purpose of both forms seem inextricably connected.

Leonard Cohen wrote poems before writing songs, navigating the genres of fiction, songwriting and poetry throughout his career, much like Patti Smith who doesn’t see much difference between songs and poetry. Many songwriters quote poets as inspiration, and many have written poetry distinct from their songwriting.

So it’s not much of a surprise that the wonderful songwriter PJ Harvey also writes poetry.

Harvey is about to release her first book of poetry, ‘The Hollow and the Hand’. She wanted to explore the people and places of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, so between 2011 and 2014, she went on a series of journeys collaborating with friend, Seamus Murphy, who took photographs to accompany her poems. Previously the two collaborated on Harvey’s album ‘Let England Shake’, with Murphy taking photographs and producing 12 short films.

Here is PJ Harvey’s poem ‘The Hand’: