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Couplets into choruses
Poet and professor Stephen Burt was the lyricist for the Songs from Scratch project.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

There was a time when Stephen Burt dreamed of being a rock star.

"I could kind of play some instruments. But I was having more fun and getting better feedback when I did things that just used words, instead of words and amplifiers and a lot of cords and stuff that had to go into vans and move from place to place," says Burt.

Eventually, Burt chose scripting stanzas over strumming guitars and schlepping gear. Today he's a published poet. And he just traded in his role as English professor at Macalester College to teach poetry at Harvard University.

But the wordsmith never lost his love for music. So when we invited him to serve as the lyricist for our Songs from Scratch series, he jumped at the offer.

"If I have a fear, it's that the musicians we're giving these words to will say, 'I can't work with that.'"

Of course, before he could start hammering out the hooks, Burt had to figure out just what distinguishes a poem from a song.

"When I read lyrics by some of my favorite lyricists, you wouldn't want to read that stuff over and over on the page if you didn't know how the music went.," says Burt. "It's not especially successful as poetry. It's not interesting to read. Sometimes it's just banal."

Just as good lyrics don't always make for a good poem, a good poem doesn't always make a good set of lyrics.

"Effective lyric writing -- if I know anything about it, and I may not -- requires room left for the music to do things to the words," says Burt. "That means not nailing down everything, not making the rhythms as dense as possible, often leaving in cliches."

For Burt, an example of successful songwriting is the tune Books from Boxes by the British band Maximo Park.

"If I were to see this on paper without ever having heard the music, I would not think anything of it, I suspect. But, as it is, you see the ways in which space has been left for the music to complete the words."

"Some of the most effective lines in there are consequences of the interaction between words and the vocal delivery and the music," Burt continues. "'The pounding rain continued its bleak fall and we decided just to write after all.' That's something that could be improved and would have to change to work on the page, but it's perfect with that singer with that arrangement."

Using indie rock as a teaching tool, Burt began molding his words into bridges and refrains. Within two weeks, he'd completed the lyrics for a tune he titled Afternoon Song.

"So these are the lyrics meant to be set to music. 'Take a blade of grass between your teeth. Check the sun. It's all alone with nothing underneath.' See, they don't sound right recited, that's kind of the point." Burt says.

In order to make his writing more music friendly, Burt threw in more rhymes than he's typically comfortable with. And he tried to make the verses less complicated, cutting out what he refers to as the $5 words. But he acknowledges a few lines may still be a bit of a mouthful.

"Crisp pollen interference patterns like a crowded pool. See nature starting up or shutting down. It's summer school. Kids on skateboards take the residential corners so fast. They watch each other like a comet from the distant past."

Some writers might have a hard time turning their words over to a bunch of musicians to interpret as they please. But Stephen Burt isn't one of them.

"Once the words are turned in, they really do belong to the bands, they belong to the people who are going to be creating the music," says Burt. "I suppose if I have a fear, it's that the musicians we're giving these words to will say, 'I can't work with that.'"

The first-time songsmith says he's just praying he doesn't get e-mails from the musicians asking, "How could you do this to me?"