Thursday, March 26, 2009

Poetry to Music

Some time ago, in a conversation among a group of writers, poets all, the topic of music and writing came up. Many confessed to listening to music while writing, in the sense that music played in the background but not in any way that would interfere with their focus. One lady said she loved to "mindlessly" hum show tunes at her keyboard. A man claimed silence worked for him; he wanted to write poems not songs. Following up on that, I asked if anyone had ever written a poem with a specific song in mind, noting that poems and songs are not interchangeable, and that early poetry was meant to be accompanied by music. Sadly, most looked at me as if I were an alien; no one tried to seriously consider the question I had raised.
In truth, I was disappointed because moments like that keep happening for me. Even in my teens I would write "alternate" lyrics for a popular song the way "Weird" Al Yankovic has used to build a career on and which a country music duo, Homer and Jethro, were doing at that time. It felt right to fit my words to an established and recognized pattern, a rhythm.

I grant that such endeavors were not the best poetry, that rhythm and rhyme were more important than expression and meaning, but that's the purpose of a song. However, I still find myself doing it. Back in the sixties when I was still feeling my way into poetry, I heard Leonard Cohen at a protest rally sing "Suzanne." He fumbled with the chording on his guitar, then apologized: "I'm a poet, not a singer." He recognized the difference, and went on to write poems with rhythm but only a limited tone and delivery. At this time, I wrote a poem to the rhythm of Bob Dylan's "Love Minus Zero - No Limit." The end result was very satisfying for me, although I never tried to sing it publicly, nor have it published.

A year or two ago I composed a poem that uses the rhythm patterns of the song "Two Hundred More Miles" by the Cowboy Junkies. It has been published; whenever I read it, I feel the rhythms re-establishing themselves under my voice. I don't attempt to sing it.
Even more recently I wrote a poem in memory of Irving Layton. Its rhythm isn't based on a specific song or piece of music, but uses the lilting 3/4 waltz time as its basic dactyllic rhythm. (You know, dum dah dah, dum dah dah .) I do sing this one, but never yet in public!
Every pattern of sounds, whether in music or in poetry, carries a sense of order and freedom, a sense that reaches above the common human experience. To blend the two, whether it is the musician composing to the written or spoken word or the poet writing with the sounds of music, is an ability that can only enhance both art forms.

1 comment:

annaken said...

I have never known you to be shy when it comes to expressing yourself in poetry or song. Why not use your very fine singing voice and sing it out instead of keeping it hidden inside you?

Something to think about!