In 2016, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan for his poetic lyrics, and it shocked the literary and music worlds alike. Although Dylan wrote both prose and poetry, the award was focused specifically on his songwriting.
Regardless of the opinions of those in the literary and music worlds when it comes to Dylan’s standing, the discussion has been opened up, as there are so many artists and musicians that have written poetry over the years, some of which even started out as writers before ever making their way to the stage.
While some of these musicians still didn’t publish their poetry until after they rose to fame through music, some of them actually have traceable publishing careers that span to the early days.
Poetry and lyricism are often linked, as the Nobel Prize in 2016 clearly shows. Some of these artists might surprise you, but plenty of them likely won’t come as too much of a shock at all.
10 Musicians who are also poets:
10. Nick Cave
Nick Cave isn’t shy about his love of literature. He says, “I try to read, at the very least, a half-hour of poetry a day, before I begin to do my own writing.” This surely comes across in his songwriting.
However, in addition to his songwriting, Cave also published a book of poetry and prose in 2015 titled The Sick Bag Song. Although it seems his attentions have lied elsewhere since the book’s publication, it’s to be expected from someone with so many projects and talents going on.
9. Tupac Shakur
Tupac has long been known as a poetic rapper. Not only does he have lyrical and literary skills, but Shakur has a variety of talents up his sleeve—including ballet!
He never published a book of poetry in his lifetime, but there was a collection that was assembled in 1999 through an imprint of Pocket Books associated with MTV. One of his most popular poems reads, “Did you hear about the rose that grew/ from a crack in the concrete?/ Proving nature’s law is wrong it/ learned to walk with out having feet.” This poem was actually written for one of his high school English projects.
8. Florence Welch
The lead singer of Florence + the Machine published a book of poetry in 2018, which was released to public and critical acclaim. Titled Useless Magic, it includes both poetry and lyrics. This should come as no surprise, as her lyrics have always been the stuff of poetic talent, but the book of proper poetry has allowed her to explore her literary skill in a whole new way.
She also wrote the foreword for another poetry book, Love is Enough: Poetry Threaded with Love, which came out just last year.
7. Tom Waits
An avid Charles Bukowski fan, it should come as no surprise that Tom Waits has tried his hand at writing his own poetry. Although he’s never published a book or collection, you can find his poetry online. It seems that even though he’s much more of a poetry fan first, Waits still has a poem or two of his own up his sleeve.
If you click around online, you can also find video and audio if Waits reading the poetry of Charles Bukowski as well as his own. It’s always good to know where you find your inspiration, and Tom Waits seems to have that down pat.
6. Lana Del Rey
“I’m a writer first and a singer second,” Lana Del Rey said in an interview years before she released her poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over Grass. A former philosophy student with a discography filled with literary references, it was only a matter of time before she wrote some literature of her own.
Her book, which features drafts, photography, and final poems from the singer, took years to write, but it will likely be the first of many from Del Rey. She has already mentioned more than once that she plans to continue in her career as a writer in addition to her career as a singer, perhaps even with longer works.
5. PJ Harvey
Speaking of women with literary references within their lyrical mastery, PJ Harvey has also published poetry of her own. She’s published her work in literary magazines, contributed to the book The Hollow of the Hand, and shared a number of her poems online. Harvey is clearly well read, with literary references to classic and contemporary fiction and poetry throughout her discography.
In 2021, it was announced that she will be publishing a book-length epic narrative poem, Orlam, which is set to drop in April of 2022. This will be her first literary full-length endeavour, but it’s likely to be one of many for the singer-songwriter.
4. Art Garfunkel
This is another one that will likely come as no surprise to anybody, especially those who have heard Simon & Garfunkel’s lyrics. Art Garfunkel actually published a full length collection of poetry in 1989, titled Still Water. This seems to be his major work in terms of writing, but it’s clear that he put quite a lot of time and effort into making it. Although many modern singer-songwriter-poets go the chapbook or photo-book route, Garfunkel has the volume to back it up.
Although you can find a physical copy of the book, Garfunkel has published the poems individually on his website, too. This has contributed to the accessibility and wider readability of his work.
3. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s meaningful, poetic lyrics in her music obviously lend themselves to a poetic career, too. She has published a collection of her poems and lyrics—a book that’s self-titled—as well as a few shorter books of lyrics and drawings. She’s had a wide career in a variety of different genres, but it’s no surprise that she’d be talented in plenty of disciplines.
She first published one of her shorter books back in 1968, so you could say that Mitchell has had her hand in poetry for a while. She shares many of the subject matters between her songwriting and her poetry.
2. Bob Dylan
Yes, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016 on the basis of his songwriting and lyrics. He’s perhaps the person who got this whole conversation rolling in the first place. Once the Nobel Prize was announced, there were plenty of people camouring to know, what is his poetry like?And plenty of this inquiries were met with simple direction to his music. However, Dylan has written proper poetry, too.
His literary career is a bit more sparse than a Nobel Prize might let on, but even so, it’s worth scoping out. However, it’s important to note that his “proper poetry” wasn’t the basis for his award. His only poetry collection came out in 1971, after which he also wrote an autobiography in 2004.
1. Patti Smith
Patti Smith, at least I think, is the queen of dominating both literary and musical pursuits. I knew her as a writer before I’d ever heard her music, and although that might not be as common nowadays, that was certainly the case for plenty of her contemporaries, considering that Smith has been publishing poetry since the 60s. Her poetry, articles, and memoir have been everywhere ever since she was a young writer in New York City, and it seems in recent years that she’s embraced her career transition into more of a writer—at least for the moment.
Not only has she published collections of poetry, and pieces in magazines, but she’s also become a celebrated memoirist in the past few decades, earning her a National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids.