Conor Courtney is an aspiring Irish poet and author. He began following the Poetry Foundation while studying English at Trinity College Dublin. Previously, Conor’s publications were limited to legal journals, as he also has an interest in law, which stemmed from also studying law in Dublin Business School.
Recently, Tony Clayton-Lea discussed the development and the power behind protest songs, and mentioned the politically and culturally charged lyrics of Beyonce’s most recent album, Lemonade. In light of America’s discussions about Black Lives Matter, and the recent tragedy at Charlottesville, protest songs seem to be more relevant than ever. It is my contention that songs and poetry are ultimately inseparable concepts; one has, in effect, sprung from the other, and this reliance on each other remains a constant factor in songs to this day.
I will discuss the association between song and poetry, as well as performing a close reading of the song ‘Formation’ by Beyoncé. The close reading will deal with the rejection of social norms evident in the song, notably the singers’ willingness to confront racism, sexism and violence present in modern society.
It is difficult to attempt to arbitrarily classify what is deemed necessary for a piece of writing to be considered poetry, as Schlegel reasoned, ‘A definition of poetry can only determine what poetry should be and not what poetry actually was and is.’ One of the clear indicators of the close links between poetry and songs are their mutual use of features known as ‘refrains’, which are sections of repetition throughout the piece.
The reality is that poetry was customarily accompanied by music throughout history, from the lyres of the ancient Greeks, to the middle ages, poetry and music have always been related. Paul Muldoon’s opinion of poetry is that it is ‘simply allowing the inherent music of language, image, and metaphor to combine in a heady mix for the purpose of creating meaning in the mind of the reader.’ Not only does this song make use of refrains, rhyming, metaphor, and repetition, it uses these poetic features to undoubtedly convey a deeper message to its readers.
The opening of this song begins with a discussion of the events of Hurricane Katrina, ‘What happened at the New Wil’ins?’ which is culturally significant, as New Orleans was predominantly populated by black citizens. This line makes use of a technique not limited to poetry, the concept of foreshadowing, which foretells how the song will end, ‘I hear some thunder, golly, look at that water, boy, oh lord.’
Equally, these segments of the song could be seen as mirroring many famous poetic works such as Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’. Just as Frost’s work can be viewed as depicting the cyclical nature of depression, Beyoncé’s song embodies the cyclical nature of discrimination. In this repetitive cycle, there may be social breakthroughs and the removal of cultural barriers, but ultimately it takes a noticeable media event to highlight the substantial differences still present between the class systems in America, and arguably, in the world as a whole.
Equally, the songwriter makes use of another poetic feature, repetition, to subtly reinforce a drastic issue present in America. The word repeated the most amount of times in this song is the word ‘slay’, which is repeated forty-seven times. This number, although apparently inconsequential, has far reaching meanings. The fact that the word repeated is ‘slay’ is crucial, as it refers to the idea of death and murder, which is not only a reference to the loss of life during Hurricane Katrina, but equally to the loss of black lives at the hands of police and gun violence currently occurring in the united states. The frequency that the word is repeated is also important, as forty-seven refers to the gun model AK-47, which is the gun which causes the most gun related deaths of black people in the world .
The final line of the song is a truly chilling reflection of the disregard for black lives in our society; ‘Golly, look at that water, boy, oh lord.’ The informal language here borders on nauseating, as it exemplifies the complete disregard for the lives of black citizens. This distortion of the brutality and loss that resulted from the hurricane is a cynical view of the world, although it is exaggerated to force the reader to confront the truth it holds, that these devastating events have been largely forgotten by some, but remain constant memories for many. Although we have moved on from this pain, although we are now at peace, there are some who cannot forget, some who are unable to ignore this, the people who will forever be haunted by the images, forced to incessantly ‘hear some thunder’.
The true poetic value of this song derives from its use of specific language. Samuel Coleridge stated, “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose—words in their best order; poetry—the best words in their best order.” It is my belief that the word ‘best’ is used to describe the words which most successfully convey their message and make a meaningful impact, and so, in that regard, this song undoubtedly falls within the definition of poetry.
One of the most essential aspects of this song’s reflection of mankind is drawn from the use of the word ‘slay’. Ultimately this word exemplifies the concept of the song, that violence and discrimination against minorities is not only a practice which has been brutal and consistent, but has equally been a detriment to society as a whole. The artist, rather than actually being moulded by society and the media, chooses to ironically claim to ‘slay’ her opposition. The contrast between the actual harm being caused by hateful language and the benefits of an unwillingness to abandon one’s morals comes into play.
The author not only refuses to actually ‘slay’ anyone, but rather, she expands upon this by using the word to enforce her art and her message, that change and acceptance come from art, from literature and from poetry. It is not violence that will incite change, it is beauty and music and genuine pain. The lines, ‘You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation, always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper,’ which, in effect, are a mirror of the classic quotation by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ This further instils in us the concept that it is through literature and poetry that change becomes effective.
The song’s approach to violence is one of temptation, yet, this apparent glorification of violence is superficial, and the true message of the song emerges through a closer reading of the lyrics. This deeper message is intentional, as Matthew Zapruder explains, ‘Many musical artists present their song lyrics as poetry. This reflects not a commercial move on their part, but a desire for the words they write to be taken seriously.’ The message of the song pivots upon the phonetic pun found in the terms ‘in formation’. The singer repeatedly states, ‘OK ladies, now let’s get in formation.’
At a basic level, this statement resembles the majority of the poem, in which the author discusses violence and opposition, and the concept of getting into formation is implicative and reminiscent of a resistance group forming. This is a violent and brutish response to the oppression and discrimination being felt by the author. However, the author’s true desire is for her gender, and for society as a whole, to get ‘information’, to think for themselves, to stand up for their beliefs and to release themselves from the thoughts of others. It is through information, rather than simple violence, that an oppressed class becomes self-empowered and independent.
In many ways, this desire for her audience to educate themselves, to liberate themselves through information, is reminiscent of Robert Kant’s essay on enlightenment, in which he encouraged mankind to break off the shackles of their oppressors, to educate themselves and to become mature, to be unafraid to, ‘try to walk unaided’.
The fundamental message of this song revolves around the constraints that have been placed on women in society, in industry, and in relationships. Beyoncé makes a clear point of opposition towards the concept that a business or lineage may be furthered by a male presence, claiming, ‘I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros.’ This is a reference to her daughter, Blue Ivy, and her only heir, who will not be limited in her potential for success by a glass ceiling being protected by a male-centric culture. The fact that she mentions her child having an ‘afro’ is further encouragement to women of colour in particular, identifying the dualistic discrimination of that particular social group.
As with poetry, it is the specificity of the language and the punctuation which contain the true reflection of the song’s message. The song reads, ‘My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana.’ This is a crucial element of the song as it embodies the concept of gender role reversal which is central to the majority of the lyrics. The age of oppression of the female sex has ended, no longer will a mother and wife be subordinate to her husband, no longer does a father deserve more respect for simply being a man. The capitalisation of ‘Momma’ is reflective of the determination of the author to simply be given the same possibilities and regard as a male in her position.
A crucial element of this song is the writer’s choice to portray herself through the guise of a man in the same position, in the attempt to discredit and expose the sexism and misogynistic nature of currently popular singers, who openly discuss women as sexual objects, ‘When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.’ Through her open use of derogatory terms for women — bitch, baby, hoe, trick — the singer is confronting the unbridled ridicule of women in popular culture and the media.
It is Beyoncé’s willingness to embrace these terms that remove their power. It’s through the juxtaposition of these terms, as well as racially oppressive terms (negro, Creole, Texas Bama) with her powerfully inspirational words, and her desire to see herself, her child, and her gender allowed to prosper, that the language becomes not only meaningless, but embarrassing, and in doing so encourages its use being halted.
The song discusses the difficulty for black women to associate with role models in the industry or in general, as they are confronted not only with the idea that it is males who hold the power for success, and they alone can take control of the markets. Although, the singer empowers herself by stating that she likes her ‘negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.’ This is a statement which encourages women to embrace their heritage by finding what were once considered stereotypical features to be attractive and to overcome the cultural stigma associated with them.
However, this line equally highlights the air of sexism in the music industry, as the Jackson Five were equally a band made famous by their decision to include their five male children, excluding their female children from the band for years. The author repeats this concept of a lack of black role models in business in the line, ‘I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.’ She has no ability to imagine herself as a confident leader in industry as our society has not given her the chance to see a woman like herself in that role. She cannot relate to the concept of the white males in power, so she molests their image into one with which she can connect, although this remains a poor substitute for a figure to inspire her, to inspire women.
Finally, an interesting aspect of this song is that it contains multiple voices, multiple inputs. Not only is Beyoncé’s voice heard, but the voices of Messy Mya and a female artist know as Big Freedie, both of whom are natives of New Orleans. One interpretation of these additional voices is that they embody the view of women in our society. The song is framed by a male voice, by a masculine presence, which mocks the concept that a female voice is not heard, is not relevant, is not meaningful without the support of a male presence.
However, this framing voice can also be seen as an attempt to transform this song into something which resembles an elegy. The voice heard belongs to a dead man, a New Orleans native, and resident who survived Hurricane Katrina, only to be shot in his home town while returning from a baby shower. This becomes almost a eulogy to Messy Mya, who resembles the overlooked in society, the forgotten, and ultimately, those whose voice died with them.
In repurposing his quotations from when he was alive, the author is not only imbuing this song with a sense of poignancy and reality, but she is also declaring that this issue is not one of the past, it is not something that can be overlooked and forgotten, this violence and discrimination is a present issue, and it must be confronted. As such, music can be seen not only as a powerful attack on social inequalities, but further, it embodies the beauty and meaning of typical poetry.
In short, it is necessary to recognise that the power of change associated with poetry has not dwindled, but transformed into music and protest songs. The intention and the meaning behind these lyrics are the artist’s poetic defiance and rebellion against an unjust society.
• Blair. David, ‘AK-47 Kalashnikov: The firearm which has killed more people than any other.’ (The Telegraph, July 2nd 2015)
• Bulwer-Lytton. Edward, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy: A Play in Five Acts (second ed. London. 1839)
• Clayton-Lea, Tony, ‘From Strange Fruit to Irish polemics: the power of the protest song.’ (Irish Times, July 6th 2016)
• Coleridge, Samuel, Specimens of the Table; Talks of Samuel Coleridge (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street 1836)
• Critchley, Simon, Very Little — Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (Psychology Press, 2004)
• Doerr, Joe Francis, ‘Rock Of Sages Cleft For Thee: Songs & Sonnets From Paul Muldoon And Cornelius Eady’ (Notre Dame Review, Summer/Fall 2013, Issue 36)
• Frost, Robert, ‘Acquainted with the Night’ (The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, © 1964)
• Kant, Immanuel, Kant’s Political Writings, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment’ (Published Königsberg, Prussia, September 1784)
• Zapruder, Matthew, ‘The Difference Between Poetry and Song Lyrics’ (Boston Review, Dec 6th 2012)