top of page

It's a Love Story... I mean, Poetry.

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

What does it take to become a Grammy-winning poet?

Maya Angelou. Robert Frost. Taylor Swift. One of these things are not like the others, and if you somehow managed to evade reading the subtitle of this post, you would probably respond with 'duh, two are poets and the other is a singer'. But what if I told you that only one of these influential poets has a Grammy award between them? Bold of me to compare America's sweetheart to such literary greats, right? Or is it?


With 41 Grammy nominations and 4 wins under her belt over a span of 14 years, Taylor Swift's wondrous and turbulent love life has proven to be one of the greatest catalysts for her most romantic and emotive songs. So with the spontaneous release of her anomalous albums in 2020, folklore and evermore, I have decided to put folklore, my favourite of the two, under the literary microscope and discuss three distinct qualities that illuminate the poetry in her music.

Credit: Beth Garrabrant


So, without further ado, let us read between the (blank) spaces of Swift's lyrics and determine exactly why she just never seems to go out of style...


Article Guide



Quality I: Metaphor Galore


Folklore and evermore, according to the following article are perceived to be 'sad' to many fans, and there is no denying the American singer-songwriter loves a good metaphor to depict heartbreak or overwhelming euphoric sentiments of love, to the extent that it becomes painful. Take the narrative in mirrorball, where the speaker is ready to be vulnerable with the man she is interested in, and wants that openness to reflect back on him so he may be inspired to also be vulnerable with her:


I want you to know

I'm a mirrorball

I'll show you every version of yourself tonight

I'll get you out on the floor

Shimmering beautiful

And when I break it's in a million pieces


Swift also creates more subtle and indirect metaphors- one of the more impressive poetic devices a poet can use. In the sombre track this is me trying, Swift makes references to cars, driving and wheels, showcasing how stagnated the speaker has become due to mental health and/or substance abuse issues:


I've been having a hard time adjusting

I had the shiniest wheels, now they're rusting

I didn't know if you'd care if I came back

I have a lot of regrets about that

Pulled the car off the road to the lookout

Could've followed my fears all the way down

And maybe I don't quite know what to say

But I'm here in your doorway

I just wanted you to know

That this is me trying


The speaker also appears to be conflicted about their wants and needs, hence, the rusting wheels, and pulling their car off the road to the lookout (implying they are looking out to the past or the damned present).

However, one of the most notable metaphors in the album is featured in my tears ricochet. Swift overindulges in imagery of mortality and mourning as a way to describe a painstaking divorce. The song was allegedly inspired by the 2019 film Marriage Story starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, playing a couple going through a bitter separation. During the live stream for the video premiere of cardigan, Swift confirmed my tears ricochet is about "a lost romance... [where] young love is often fixed so permanently in our memories."


We gather here, we line up

Weepin' in a sunlit room, and

If I'm on fire, you'll be made of ashes too


Ironically, the death imagery doesn't end there:


I didn't have it in myself to go with grace

And you're the hero flying around, saving face

And if I'm dead to you, why are you at the wake?

...

You know I didn't want to have to haunt you

But what a ghostly scene

You wear the same jewels that I gave you

As you bury me


Death may not be the most inventive metaphor to describe the finality of a relationship breakdown, but we will come to see how Swift's musical poetry ascends beyond transparent, self-explanatory symbolism.

Credit: Beth Garrabrant


Quality II: Instagram poetry, but better.


The second poetic quality in Swift's songs tugs at the heart strings in prompt, sharp expressions of melancholy, longing, inescapable nostalgia and masochistic reflections on past memories. Her observations are honest, heartfelt, and implicate much of the perils and sensationalised emotions associated with young love.


Similar to Instagram poetry or micro-poetry, Swift is unashamed and concise about her thoughts and revelations regarding a relationship that may no longer exist, compressing her pivotal thoughts into three distinct, emotive lines, guaranteed to appeal to her young audience:


And it's hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound

It's hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you

You're a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

(song: this is me trying)


A friend to all is a friend to none

Chase two girls, lose the one

When you are young, they assume you know nothin'

(song: cardigan)


We see this yearning in august also, however Swift expands more on the narrative by generating descriptive images of the scene:


But I can see us lost in the memory

August slipped away into a moment in time

'Cause it was never mine

And I can see us twisted in bedsheets

August sipped away like a bottle of wine

'Cause you were never mine

Emotions hit an all-time high with illicit affairs where the speaker is engaging in an affair with a man who is already in a relationship with someone else. The speaker understands she can never attain his love, so pours out her heart with not only idealised, saccharine expressions of her infatuation, but also with the repetition of certain phrases and expressions- another device Swift (and countless musicians) use:


And you wanna scream

Don't call me "kid"

Don't call me "baby"

Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me

You showed me colours

You know I can't see with anyone else

Don't call me "kid"

Don't call me "baby"

Look at this idiotic fool that you made me

You taught me a secret language

I can't speak with anyone else


Credit: Beth Garrabrant


Quality III: The Emerging Poet


Similar to our second category, our final category takes a step back from love, heartbreak and diaristic reflection being the central characteristics of a song, and emphasises on the beauty of Swift's words via her most enchanting descriptions and quirky observations. In invisible strings, Swift makes a reference to her 2014 hit Bad Blood from her fifth studio album, 1989, a playful little nod to her distant, synth-pop past:


Bad was the blood of the song in the cab

On your first trip to LA


She melds a reflective style of story-telling with atmospheric descriptions of Centennial Park, and the eventual 'heaven' she has found:


Cold was the steel of my axe to grind

For the boys who broke my heart

Now I send their babies presents

Gold was the colour of the leaves

When I showed you around Centennial Park

Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven


Swift diversifies her story-telling skills in illicit affairs by using internalised dialogue to indicate shame, deceit and seedy undertones:


Make sure nobody sees you leave

Hood over your head, keep your eyes down

Tell your friends you're out for a run

You'll be flushed when you return

...

What started in beautiful rooms

Ends with meetings in parking lots


As a final example, I thought it would be fitting to identify a 'stanza' where all three distinct qualities are present: the use of metaphor, appealing to saccharine romance and effective poetic expression, such as the below from cardigan:


I knew you

Tried to change the ending

Peter losing Wendy, I

I knew you

Leavin' like a father

Running like water, I

And when you are young, they assume you know nothing

Credit: Beth Garrabrant


Final thoughts:


Folklore is undoubtedly the love child of autumn, nostalgia, memories of high school in Pennsylvania and beige, angora sweaters. The lyrics are no excerpts of The Iliad, but by combining them with mellow, breathy vocals, folky, electroacoustic tones and outer-worldly orchestras, the romanticism in her words reach new emotional altitudes and become more than just music.


Much like the overall feel of this album, the lyrics paint an overlapping portrait of self-reflection, unbridled longing and at times, voyeurism, strung together by the one woman who was there to experience it all, and something like Arabian Nights, sat down to record these events to immortalise not only her music, but her poetry forever.




63 views9 comments

Related Posts

See All

9 Comments


NP Hunt
NP Hunt
Aug 06, 2022

Some really great points raised here. I often think songwriters are generally really underrated for the poetry in their lyrics. While Bob Dylan did receive the Nobel literature Prize, the majority of other lyricists are overlooked for their skill, and there seems to be a snobbery about counting songwriters as poets. Would definitely rate people like Michael Stipe, Roddy Woomble, and Mazzy Star (& countless others) as fantastic poets.

You gave some really great examples here. Thanks for sharing.

Like
Shen Friebe
Shen Friebe
Aug 07, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for your comments and recommendations, NP! I never considered snobbery to be the reason why poetic lyricism is often overlooked, almost as if the application of music to words is some kind of artistic betrayal. Odd, but at least many singers/songwriters are often perceived as 'artists' too!

Like

Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jul 18, 2022

I find those particular lyrics from Cardigan that you transposed to death imagery...

"You know I didn't want to have to haunt you

But what a ghostly scene

You wear the same jewels that I gave you

As you bury me"


I found were quite indicative of the same elements that Sylvia Plath uses in her poem, Lady Lazarus. The semblances in neurotic and morose imagery between the two are remarkably canny to the concept of young love and mortality. Here's a snippet of Lady Lazarus for comparison:


"I am your opus,

I am your valuable,

The pure gold baby


That melts to a shriek.

I turn and burn.

Do not think I underestimate your great concern."


I only find…


Like
Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jul 19, 2022
Replying to

I don't think humankind ever really changes into something entirely different, we just add more stuff into the mix and how we choose to conduct ourselves in regards to those subtle changes. I guess it is a bit of a teeter-totter act, really.

Like

Suchita Senthil Kumar
Suchita Senthil Kumar
Jul 18, 2022

This is such a wonderful analysis Shen. The way you say things makes the meaning of the lyrics stand out even more beautifully. Loved this post so very much. Looking forward to your next!!

Like
Shen Friebe
Shen Friebe
Jul 19, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for your kind words, Suchita! Means a lot coming from you :)

Like

Adam Gary
Adam Gary
Jul 18, 2022

An absolutely brilliant post Shen!

Like
Shen Friebe
Shen Friebe
Jul 19, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Adam! :)

Like
bottom of page