Poetry Doesn’t Need Music; Lyrics Do

Green Finch and Linnet Bird
by Stephen Sondheim, from Sweeney Todd

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate,
Sitting in cages,

Never taking wing?
Outside the sky waits,
Beckoning, beckoning,
Just beyond the bars,
How can you remain,
Staring at the rain,
Maddened by the stars?
How is it you sing
Anything?
How is it you sing?

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
Whence comes this melody
    constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely halloing?
Are you discussing
Or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

Ringdove and robinet,
Is it for wages,
Singing to be sold?
Have you decided it's
Safer in cages,
Singing when you're told?

My cage has many rooms,
Damask and dark.
Nothing there sings,
Not even my lark.
Larks never will, you know,
When they're captive.
Teach me to be more adaptive.

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.

*     *     *     *     *

"Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems," states Stephen Sondheim in the introduction to Finishing the Hat, a collection of his lyrics from 1954 to 1981. "Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort…Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion…Poetry doesn't need music; lyrics do."

"Green Finch and Linnet Bird," sung by the character of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, may not be a poem, but to read it without its haunting, angular melody is to "hear" it slightly differently.

~ From Knopf’s Borzoi Reader Poem-a-Day from today. Visit the site to hear actress Kate Levy reading Sondheim’s lyrics.