Fostering Purposefulness (and Not Correctness) in Students as Writers: The National Edition

A confluence of language has washed over me lately, completely an accident of living. I have been reading and finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger just as The National has begun releasing singles from their upcoming album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein.

Currently my favorite band, The National’s music is characterized by their lead singer’s (Matt Berninger) literary elements, augmented by co-writing with his wife, Carin Besser. The new album leans heavily into the literary with the odd title, grounded in Berninger’s struggles with writer’s block when starting to compose this album.

The first three releases—“Tropic Morning News,” “New Order T-Shirt,” and “Eucalyptus”—sound like they have 1960s and 1980s pop influences and offer what appears to be an evolution in Berninger as a lyricist.

These three songs seem grounded in “Not in Kansas” from I am Easy to Find, a rambling sort of song that achieves its lyrical/poetic elements in many rhetorical and syntactical ways while also depending on specific details (such as references to other musical groups).

Having been a serious writer since my first year of college, I am often drawn to words and language in my hobbies, and lyrics fascinate me in the same way that poetry does.

I spent almost two decades teaching poetry to high school students through the songs of R.E.M. And among the many things I miss about teaching high school English is that I don’t have the space as I did then to engage students with lyrics as models for writing with purpose (a much more foundational writing skill than correctness).

As a poet and a teacher, I am not arguing that all students should love poetry (although I suspect that student resistance to poetry is mostly instilled in them by formal schooling ruining poetry), but I do maintain that studying how poetry/lyrics are written is an excellent context for fostering purposeful students as writers.

Lyrics are poetry adjacent; lyrics absent the music are not necessarily poetry, but a form of composing that embraces an essential quality of poetry—economy of language.

Poetry as a form relies on a purposeful structure—lines and stanzas—and a heightened form of expression through language. Poems tends to be brief and most pop songs hover around 3 minutes so these forms of text share that urgency to make the most out of the fewest words possible.

Yes, there are prose poems and book-length poems, but even then, these poetic forms are formed in tension with expectations of lines/stanzas and brevity.

What has struck me with the first 3 songs off The National’s upcoming album is Berninger’s (and when co-writing with Besser) use of specific details as well as rhetorical and syntactical patterns that raise the lyrics to poetry beyond the expected use of rhyme.

I want to focus here on two of the songs, “New Order T-Shirt” and “Eucalyptus,” as models for fostering purposefulness in students as writers.

A writing challenge in poetry and lyrics is achieving a coherent text within a very short space while also attending to more than creating meaning; to that last point, poetry and lyrics often depend heavily on exact word choice and rhetorical/syntactical elements in a compressed and layered way that isn’t necessarily in prose (although my recent McCarthy reading drifts far closer to poetry than standard prose).

So how do the lyrics of these two songs demonstrate qualities students as writers should aspire to?

First, I want to highlight how rhetorical and syntactical elements of raise the language of two songs to “poetic” (in the same way we associate rhyme and meter with “poetic”).

Consider the following:

When you rescued me from the customs cops in Hawaii
When I shut down the place with my Japanese novelty bomb
And your dad came along
How you had me lay down for a temperature check
With the cool of your hand on the back of my neck
When I said, “I think I’m finally going crazy for real”

“New Order T-Shirt”

What about the glass dandelions?
What about the TV screen?
What about the undeveloped cameras?
Maybe we should bury these
What about the last of the good ones?
What about the ceiling fans?
What if we moved back to New York?
What about the moondrop light?


Both songs’ opening stanzas are compelling and coherent structurally, relying on rhetorical patterns—the “when” and “how” clauses drive “New Order T-Shirt” and the “what” questions anchor “Eucalyptus.”

In typical Berninger fashion, these two examples also highlight how the specific details give writing weight and richness; both songs are heavily concrete, including a dependence on proper nouns and details.

Focusing on how the songs open also contributes to helping students interrogate how meaning is built by the writer and for the reader. The writer must have a coherent plan and purpose, but also present a text in a way that allows the reader to construct meaning.

Although cliche and a bit simplistic, poetry and lyrics when done well capture the truism “show, don’t tell” since the meaning comes from the whole text as a result of its parts.

Like poetry, as well, lyrics depend heavily on sound and patterns.

We expect rhyme in lyrics and poetry, so the near rhyme of “screen” and “these” in “Eucalyptus” both draws in and disorients the listener, reinforcing the complex topic of the song dealing with what appears to be a break up.

In those lyrics also, Berninger plays with meaning in the chorus:

You should take it ’cause I’m not gonna take it
You should take it, I’m only gonna break it
You should take it ’cause I’m not gonna take it
You should take it, you should take it


The listener must navigate the tension in the layers of the chorus: “take it” as in physically possessing an object and then “take it” as in putting up with a situation.

Rhetoric, syntax, and diction are the tools of the poet/lyricist who has chosen to work within the limiting constraints of poetry or a pop song; that’s where the economy of language and the need to express merge, creating poetic language.

There are many more things students could be asked to do with these lyrics, but I wanted here to start and continue a consideration of how lyrics and poetry can serve as powerful models for being an effective writer through acknowledging purposefulness and control by the writer.

There are no temples, and simplistic rules for writing often fall flat (like “show, don’t tell”), but there are enduring concepts emerging writers need to examine and adopt.

Concrete and specific details, rhetorical patterns applied with purpose, and paying attention to the sounds and emotional impact of words and syntax—this is the stuff of writing well, and these are the elements found throughout the songs I have identified here.

Some aspects of becoming a writer are ignored or simply bulldozed over, yet are as essential as the things we have traditionally taught (five-paragraph essays, rubrics, correctness, etc.)—such as engaging the reader and balancing the content of writing with the aesthetics of language.

Lyrics and poetry are ideal for highlighting those ignored elements because they are brief, rich, and engaging.

For a while now, this has been playing over and over in my head:

How you had me lay down for a temperature check
With the cool of your hand on the back of my neck
When I said, “I think I’m finally going crazy for real”

“New Order T-Shirt”

As a fan, this clearly resonates with me, but as a writer/teacher I want students to investigate how these lines are compelling—the rhetorical patterns (“how,” “when”) throughout the song creating meaning and the details shaping a very brief but compelling narrative.

Unlike (for me) McCarthy’s The Passenger, the three new songs from The National are satisfying and fulfilling, even when I find some of them fragmentary, possibly incomplete.

They also warrant re-listening because that element of fulfilling grows over time with the text and complete song.

Our students are unlikely to be poets, lyricists, or even writers beyond formal schooling, but there is a great deal to be gained from exploring purposeful things in order to foster purposefulness in what we do and why.

The speaker in “New Order T-Shirt” admits a few times, “I carry them with me like drugs in a pocket,” and for me, this is the thing about poems and songs I love. That line reminding me:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], e.e. cummings

Finally, I think, we often get lost trying to teach writing, mired in the technical, the rules and such. But language is more often about how we feel and about our need to communicate through language.

Poetry and lyrics are an ideal medium for not getting lost in the technical when inviting students to explore becoming writers.

Recent Poem

closer (turn inside out before washing)