Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department
The Bolter edition of The Tortured Poets Department

Taylor Swift: The Great American Poet?

It’s not literary devices that make something poetry or the analysis we perform, but the emotion it elicits through them, which is why Taylor Swift is a poet.

The Tortured Poets Department
Taylor Swift
19 April 2024

I remember sitting in one of my required classes for my English degree, explaining to a classmate and our professor that I felt like I should analyze poetry for an essay because I never felt like I understood it. Stories, written in prose, were easy: some details mattered, some didn’t, and you weren’t going to catch everything the first time anyway, so whatever you did find was what you worked with. In poetry, everything mattered. Every word, syllable, punctuation mark, and everything they didn’t include. It was all-important. 

I had, honestly, forgotten about this conversation until the release of Taylor Swift’s latest album, The Tortured Poet’s Department. I’ve been a fan since her 2008 hit “You Belong With Me”, but I would call myself a “casual Swiftie”. I was aware of the album release, but I didn’t stay up until midnight to listen; The Tortured Poet’s Department is the first of Swift’s albums I have listened to all the way through. 

However, my social media algorithms have picked up on my interest in Swift, and I’ve seen a lot of posts about her record-breaking Eras Tour and vast catalog. Instagram user @maria.hopeofitall has a running series about “convincing people that Taylor Swift is one of the greatest poets of all time”, highlighting lyrics that she finds particularly poetic and providing some analysis. There are just as many comments claiming Swift is one of the greatest poets of our time as those who cannot understand what fans feel is poetic about her lyrics. 

When poetry is taught in English classrooms, the focus is on analysis: you don’t understand everything on the first read and might have to look up words or revisit the rhyme scheme to really get what the poet meant. We teach students to look for metaphors and allusions and that you cannot assume the poet is the “speaker” or the audience is who is being spoken to. Reading between the lines is never more critical than in a poem. You can do the same thing to most song lyrics and certainly perform a poetic analysis of Taylor Swift’s works. 

We could highlight the line “sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see” and ask about the connotations of “sanctimonious” and “soliloquies”: sanctimonious has ties to religion, coming from the Latin sanctus for “holy”, while soliloquies are performed in plays where a character is speaking directly to the imagined audience, rather than another character. This analysis portrays Taylor Swift’s imagined critics as playing a part for someone who may or may not exist or be listening, imagining her as a sinner and themselves as morally above her without evidence. 

We could take The Tortured Poet’s Department and put it into conversation with itself. Taylor Swift uses “precocious” across the album. This word is a mere syllable away from “precious”, a tie to the commodification of youth and performers that she explicitly sings about in “Clara Bow”, among other songs. We could imagine “little old me” and “the smallest man who ever lived” in conversation, thinking about the ways that we belittle people in our disdain for them and the differences in the anger that both songs portray, one where the speaker diminishes and one where they are diminished. 

But you can analyze any literature. What would define Taylor Swift’s self-titled poetry record as either included or barred from that category? The definition Google pulls from Oxford Languages does not mention analysis: “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” There is certainly rhythm to these songs and words that express feelings. So far, it seems to check the “poetry” boxes. 

In The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift makes much of nostalgia for the past, her personal history, and other eras, as well as many references to nature and Gothic themes that call back to the literary movements of the early 19th century, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. In fact, she quite literally name-drops “the 1830s” in a much-quoted (and contentious) line. However, poetry began before the 1800s, and it was not so far from Swift’s profession. 

Poetry, as Daniel Karlin writes for The British Academy, “began as song”, predating the written word. Ancient epics like The Iliad would have been told orally, with a rhythm and melody to help their storytellers remember what came next. This lyric poetry was for the masses, the most accessible form of storytelling. Poetry has long had a reputation as elitist, unlike music or prose, but it didn’t start that way. 

The 18th century saw a rise in “working class poets”, Dr Sandie Byrne studies in her book Poetry and Class, “who required patronage”. By the end of the 1700s, Romanticism was the style of the era in the United Kingdom, marked by the 1798 publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Romanticism as an artistic movement emphasized the individual, emotions, an appreciation for nature, and an interest in looking back to the past. 

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge defined poetry. In the 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… recollected in tranquility.” Coleridge’s definition of poetry was perhaps even simpler: “the best words in the best order.” Romantic poets sought to explore “the incidents of common life” by making them the subject of their poems. Wordsworth popularized writing in “the very language of men”, plain language you would have heard in conversation. 

In the years following the rise of Romanticism in Europe, the literary scene in the United States birthed Transcendentalism, a strain of Romantic philosophy that prized the insight of the individual and connection with the natural world that came into its own at the beginning of the 1830s. 

Just after the announcement of The Tortured Poets Department, Ancestry.com announced that Taylor Swift is distantly related to the famous Transcendental poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, in turn, was born in 1830 and is described by Poetry Foundation as “one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time” who “challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work”. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe Swift appreciates and has been inspired by Emily Dickinson. 

Dickinson was a recluse for much of her life, and her poetry was not published until after her death, but she was a prolific poet and letter writer, and thus we have insight into her life and thoughts. In a letter, she once defined poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Her definition calls back to Wordsworth’s intense emotion, substituting metaphors for his description. It could nearly be a Taylor Swift lyric. 

These poets are implied through the topics and themes of the songs, but on The Tortured Poets Department‘s title track, Swift name-drops two poets: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith.” Dylan Thomas (whose most famous poem is probably “Do not go gentle into that good night”) was a Welsh poet described by the Poetry Foundation as “an extension into the 20th century of the general movement called Romanticism, particularly in its emphasis on imagination, emotion, intuition, spontaneity, and organic form.” Patti Smith is an American rock musician and poet who used her poetry to make a name for herself as a songwriter and performer in the 1970s. 

Dylan Thomas is quoted as defining poetry as “what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing”. For her part, Patti Smith views her poetry and her songs as separate, her poems for herself and her songs for public performance. It is the anti-comparison here that is interesting. If Swift’s speaker in “The Tortured Poets Department” is not Patti Smith, then she must view her songs as poetry, speaking private thoughts to the world writ large. The implication here would be that Swift considers her songs poetry, which might be all that counts. 

The New York Times album review for The Tortured Poets Department both celebrates and finds fault with Swift’s work and comes with its own definition of poetry: “A palpable love of language and a fascination with the ways words lock together in rhyme certainly courses through Swift’s writing. But poetry is not a marketing strategy or even an aesthetic — it’s a whole way of looking at the world and its language, turning them both upside down in search of new meanings and possibilities. It is also an art form in which, quite often and counter to the governing principle of Swift’s current empire, less is more.” But is that true? 

If we take Romanticism as our guiding poetic philosophy, as Swift seems to have done in her album, then it should be far more important that the lyrics come from a place of deep emotion, that which inspires the poet and the audience. We can only assume, from her writing, publication, and choice to name herself the Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department, that Taylor Swift wrote these songs from “powerful feeling” and that they might continue to inspire that in her. Does it matter, then, if her audience also calls it poetry?

Billboard’s album review claims that “Taylor Swift has chosen to release a knowingly messy, wildly unguarded breakup album”, one where she “has never placed so much emphasis on her words” and one where “unbridled emotion and unkempt drama often [takes] center stage”. NPR’s Ann Powers writes that this album speaks to listeners, but for the poet, her “lack of concern about whether these songs speak for and to anyone besides herself is audible throughout the album. It’s the sound of her freedom”. It seems to me that her audience can feel the emotion in her work. 

To apply these definitions to The Tortured Poets Department, these songs count as poetry for both their author and her audience. Poetry is about saying things through “the best words”, using metaphor, analogy, and enjambment to tell its story by making the reader pause and feel. It is not the literary devices that make it poetry or the analysis we could perform, but the emotion it elicits through them, whether that be joy or sadness, anger or confusion. 

To those who would still disagree, claiming that there is nothing poetic about Taylor Swift’s lyrics and quoting lines like “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto,” I urge a pause. Even anger, disgust, incredulity, and disdain are emotions. Perhaps not the feelings the poet intended, but emotions nonetheless. There is no definition of poetry that excludes negative emotions from defining it as poetry. 

For my part, I did not write that essay analyzing poetry. I proposed a separate project in another class about poetry that turned into an analysis of novels, too. I have never felt I succeeded at analyzing poetry in a classroom, but that’s never been the point of poetry. The point is to feel it, to recoil at it, or to enjoy it, and I have successfully done this with Wordsworth as much as Taylor Swift. 

Works Cited

Ancestry Team. “Taylor Swift and Emily Dickinson–6th Cousins, Three Times Removed.” Ancestry, 4 March 2023. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Romanticism“. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 April 2024. Accessed 17 May 2024.

Dylan Thomas.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Flanagan, Mark. “What Is Poetry, and How Is It Different?Thought Co., 18 July 2019. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Karlin, Daniel. “What is poetry?The British Academy. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Lipshutz, Jason. “Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Is Messy, Unguarded And Undeniably Triumphant: Critic’s Take.” Billboard, 19 April 2024. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Maria [@maria.hopeofitall]. “Day 24: convincing people that Taylor Swift is one of the greatest poets of all time.” Instagram, 25 October 2023.

Nemerov, Howard. “poetry”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 March 2024. Accessed 17 May 2024.

Poetry.Google. Accessed 17 May 2024.

Poetry and Class: a new book from Dr Sandie Byrne.” Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford, 29 April 2020. Accessed 17 May 2024.

Popova, Maria. “Patti Smith on Listening to the Creative Impulse and the Crucial Difference Between Writing Poetry and Songwriting.” The Marginalian. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Powers, Ann. “Taylor Swift’s ‘Tortured Poets’ is written in blood.” NPR, 19 April 2024. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Tips for Reading.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Wasson, Donald. “Ancient Greek Literature.” World History Encyclopedia, 11 October 2017. Accessed 17 May 2024. 

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 1800, Volume 1. Project Gutenberg. Accessed 17 May 2024.

Zoladz, Lindsay. “On ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ Taylor Swift Could Use an Editor.New York Times, 19 April 2024. Accessed 17 May 2024.