A Poet’s Appreciation for a Lyrical Masterpiece – ‘Vincent’ – By Don McLean.

Creative writing can be a rewarding past-time and career to those of us who feel that way inclined. So many forms of creative writing exist, the likes of prose, verse, narrative, dialogue, poetry, lyrics, among many others. Unfortunately, most people regard poetry as being a stiff and strictly formal type of creative writing, but it does not need to be.

From my own experience in writing poetry, songs, and lyrics, this song has always stood out in my mind as a masterpiece of lyrics and pure poetry. There is no record, to the best of my knowledge, that Don McLean wrote poetry as such, but this song’s lyrics are right up there as a great piece of poetry in my reckoning.

For creative writers, a good practice is to read other writers’ creative works for inspiration toward writing one’s own. In so doing, I found the lyrics of a great folk/rock song that I have loved for over forty years. It is Don McLean’s song ‘Vincent’, which is often erroneously titled “Starry Starry Night”.

Don McLean had read Vincent Van Gogh’s life story and, based on Van Gogh’s painting, ‘The Starry Night’, he wrote the song and lyrics of “Vincent’ in 1971 as a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. Don McLean’s biography makes for interesting reading.

Similarly, to there being many forms of creative writing, poetry has hundreds, if not over a thousand, forms or styles. So, pinning a poetic form to this song’s lyrics is difficult, not that one absolutely must do so, but I say that it can be classified as Free Form poetry. It is stanzaic, and it has rhyming in every verse’s 2nd and 3rd, 4th and 5th, and 6th and 7th rows. Also rhyming are the last two rows of each chorus. There is no clear syllabic count or any constant iambic metering.

The lyrics of songs most often do not follow any formal poetic form. As with many songs’ lyrics, multiple words cover a couple of beats in a bar, while other bars are void of any words, but they contain music and musical bridges, or even a brief silence.

In ‘Vincent’, the refrain, “Starry Starry Night”, in the first row of each verse, is catching and it sets or resets the scene for each verse. The contrasting and matching phrases used in the lyrics are remarkably effective, for example, “Portraits hung in empty halls, Frameless heads on nameless walls”.

The musical score of this song sets the metering as 4/4, which means that there are four bars in each frame and there are four beats in each bar. On the face of it, as seen below, it does not look as if it will fit, but it certainly does.

Some people perceive the song to be romantic, others perceive it to be sad and somber, whilst others perceive it to be an inspired writing and inspiring in the literary sense. It originates from a heartful and soulful Don McLean.

A photograph of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, ‘The Starry Night’, courtesy of
https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starry-night.html

I suggest that people first read the lyrics below purely as a poem, and thereafter read it again whilst listening to the song.

Vincent - By Don McLean.
“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colours on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue
Colours changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget
Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in the ragged clothes
The silver thorn, a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will”

Every time I read this song’s lyrics and listen to the music, I am blown away again and deeply inspired to write more poetry and songs. My hope is that this will inspire more people to take up creative writing, especially poetry, it is such good fun.

Refer to this Chronicle’s Multi Media category for poems written by me.

Sources and references:

Song and Lyrics Writer – Don McLean.

The lyrics are licensed and provided by LyricFind.

Music Publisher: Universal Music Publishing Group

Author

4 Responses

  1. I agree, Vaughan. This is one of the best. Both as a poem and a beautiful song. Your analysis is spot on. There are many beautiful poems hidden in what we often simply call great songs. Another which sprung to mind as I read your article is ‘Where do you go to’ by Peter Sarstead. I’ll perhaps leave that to you to detail in another article. And as I write I hear ‘It Must Be Him’ by Vikki Carr on the radio. Oh dear, my mind runs wild. What have you started? Well done.

    1. Peter, thank you for your appreciation of the article. Yes, there are many songs whose lyrics make for good poetry. I will be covering them in due course. Often times the quality of the music lifts the lyrical quality to an even higher level.
      Write on.

  2. Great article Vaughan; inspiring and thought-provoking. Vincent really is a lyrical masterpiece and one of my favourite songs ever. My head is also now buzzing with other great song/poems (some by Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen spring to mind) – look forward to reading your future analyses!

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