Call him a poet.
"Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems." To people who claim that song lyrics are synonymous with light verse, he counters, "Light verse is complete unto itself. Lyrics by definition lack something."
And in discussing the words to the song "Something's Coming" — sung by the about-to-be-besotted Tony in "West Side Story" (1957) — Sondheim grouses, "Some of these images may seem 'poetic' in the way I deplore."
His lyrics are not intended to appear on a page, naked and tuneless, he says: "Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung." Thus the publication of his lyrics is "a dubious proposition. … Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort."
Yet as the sales figures for poetry collections prove, for most people, song lyrics are the only poetry to which they habitually attend — without having a gun pressed to their head — and certainly the only poetry for which they willingly fork over money.
Song lyrics are usually the first poems we learn as children, from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." Not exactly Wordsworthian, but chances are, you still remember every word.
Many contemporary songwriters have no problem being called poets — in fact, they actively aspire to the label. Poetry collections by pop musicians include Jewel's "A Night Without Armor" (1998), Jill Scott's "The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours" (2005), Billy Corgan's "Blinking With Fists" (2004) and Jeff Tweedy's "Adult Head" (2004).
Some of these efforts, while a hit with fans, are of questionable literary value. "I miss your touch/ all taciturn," Jewel writes in her poem "I Miss Your Touch," "like the slow migration of birds/ nesting momentarily/ upon my breast/ then lifting/ silver and quick — ."
Bob Dylan, who published a collection of prose poems in "Tarantula" (1971), has been rumored in recent years to be on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Still, Sondheim's conviction that poems and songs are very different entities is surely the majority attitude in contemporary American culture — even though it represents a comparatively recent shift.
Poems and songs weren't always on opposite sides of a chasm. Centuries ago, poems and songs were regarded as the same thing. Scholars of antiquity believe that early poetry was chanted or sung rather than recited, and most people listened to poems in crowds instead of reading the poems by themselves in private.
Epics such as the "Iliad" were considered songs as much as they were poems, and came to be written down only after generations of people had thrilled to the story.
Today's song lyrics, then, are the last remnants of what used to be a thriving popular tradition. The words to songs, says Veronica Horwell, a London-based essayist who has written admiringly of Sondheim's work, are "the last oral poetry common in our lives." The pinnacle of achievement for the English language, the plays of Shakespeare, are filled with songs, she notes. The dialogue and the song lyrics are all part of the same magical, transporting experience.
"I began to read Shakespeare as a primary school child," recalls Horwell. "I read Shakespeare's lyrics and … wished I knew the music for them, as I wanted to sing them. They demanded to be sung.
"If you think about it, the earliest poetry was an attempt to make a formulation of words memorable and therefore repeatable at internal and external command by using the most musical aspects of language."
Today's cultural gatekeepers, however, often are unwilling to concede that poems and song lyrics are the same thing. Like Britain, the United States has a poet laureate — but not a songwriter laureate.
Of the editors for whom she works, Horwell says, "I have never been able to persuade them to consider Sondheim's lyrics, or any other lyrics, as the oral poetry they undoubtedly are."