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(How) Do Poetry and Music Mix?

About a year ago, I went along to a near-capacity crowded Usher Hall in Edinburgh to hear Natalie Merchant and her band play through much of her new album, Leave Your Sleep, in which she had set poems (mainly based around a theme of childhood) to music. You can hear excerpts from it here. Before each song, she talked about the poet and why she had chosen this particular poem. Some of the poets were well known and others neglected or forgotten, but the show – words, photos and music – brought them to life again. She had an obvious enthusiasm and passion for poetry which she was able to communicate to her audience, not all of whom would have read much poetry.

Earlier this year, I journeyed through to the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow to see The Waterboys. The band weren’t playing their hit songs, but performed a show of entirely new material. At least, the music was new. The words were written by WB Yeats. Mike Scott (who basically is The Waterboys) said he had wanted to do this for years due to his love of Yeats’ poetry. It was a terrific gig, and you can see/hear a few moments from it at this link. As I left I heard someone say that they were going to get a book by Yeats and read the poems, and that “I’ve never been much into poetry before, but I’d love to read that stuff.”

Last month, I was listening to Golden Key, a wonderful new CD by Mirabeau. It’s haunting acoustic music, mainly fingerpicking guitars (Caroline Trettine and Ian Kearey), also featuring a woman with a fantastic singing voice (the aforementioned Trettine) and spoken passages from poet, Richard Price. Examples can be found via the previous link and at the band’s MySpace site. Some of the lyrics were previously featured in Price’s last poetry collection, Rays, published by Carcanet.

I wonder what you think of all this. Is it a good way to get people interested in poetry? Do those of you who love poetry and read it regularly feel you’d like to hear more of this kind of thing? Or does music actually get in the way of how poems normally communicate – words alone breaking into silence? Does anyone now feel tempted to wipe the dust from their electric guitar and get their old band back together to record musical versions of their own poems, or other people’s poems?

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Like this – – should open with Windows Media or similar. I don’t see why music should get in the way of words if it’s thought through- Thomas Campian and Thomas Wyatt didn’t think so, when they set their poems to the lute. Brassens set poems to music well, including his own. And it undoubtedly increases the crowd at readings. Paul Henry sometimes uses his guitar at readings – see

  2. I’m very much for the blend of music and poetry, if and when two artists are on the same wavelength. Why not? Poetry is already published in books; let it do its job, let words break into silence, there. Poetry is already doing that. My second love after poetry is music, and most of my friends are heavily into music; potentially poetry too, they just haven’t read/heard very much of it. If more of this was done, it would give them an in, certainly. (Interesting, Rob, that the person you overheard after the gig didn’t just say ‘Nice lyrics’ but ‘I’m going to buy a book.’ So his/her experience didn’t jeopardise the place of the poem on the page.) But ultimately, poetry arose from music in the first place; the lyric is called the lyric for obvious reasons. And my hunch is that the total seperation of the two is a major contributing factor that has put people off. Poetry is too often an elitist activity which turns up its nose at other art forms. Would music think twice about collaborating with visual art? Drama with dance? Does anyone think that the ‘purity’ of each is jeopardised when they meet? Possibly, I don’t know. Not me.

  3. I like some and dislike others’ attempts. Poems are a blend of sound and meaning and thye have their own rhythms. Occassionally a musical score can compete with this and reduce the poem to only its meaning in quite abare sense e..g you hav eto grasp at the words and try and make sense of them. Often songs written for/ with music work better than poems set to music because they knw how to balance the elements. Generally a good song needs a simple shape and lots of vowels to sing the notes out on.
    That said I think every listener will have a slightly different brain and so a different feel for what is the right balance for sense and sound-music. I frequently mishear words in songs (‘Isn’t she lovely? Made of wood’!), so tend to lose out when poems are set to or backed by music. Poems that deliberately choose unusual words and framings may get lost in the mix.

  4. I’m currently reading Scanning The Century and it’s so refreshing to see the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Lewis Allen alongside WH Auden, Peter Porter and Joseph Brodsky. Lyrics, poems, songs, they’re all from the same tree but rarely flower together and they should. Happy Birthday Bob.

  5. And the reverse is also true. Hearing Juan Diego Florez singing in Zelmira, the Barber of Seville and Rigoletto makes me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, feel the need to write poetry as a response. Playing a powerful piece of music is a good stimulus when trying to encourage young people to write poetry as well.

  6. I’m with Pound who felt that Music needs to be around or in the vicinity of Dance, just as Poetry ‘atrophies’ when it is removed from Music. The ancient Greek poets, of course, seemed able to combine drama, dance and lyric successfully.

  7. I just love Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep. I often play it when in need of inspiration. I also lent it to my son’s teacher so that she could play it during poetry week.

    I am so envious that you saw her playing live.

    I think that there is a place for poetry without music and for poetry with music. Whatever works and whatever makes people happy.

  8. Music and poetry can work – it depends. I have put two of my poems to music because of the way they were structured (for my own amusement!), but not all poems would work.

  9. As a singer and poet I work with both poetry and music – separately and together. Writing lyrics and writing poetry are surprisingly different activities, and doing both has taught me a great deal about the other.

    When poems are set to music I often get frustrated that there is no space – the images rush by too fast. If we were reading the poem to ourselves we would skip back to re-read, or pause to let the images settle and expand.

    This frustration led directly to the creation of my show Utter:Jazz, in which amazingly talented jazz musicians improvise in response to the words of the poem I’m reading at the time. There is no preparation, so the music is prompted by the words and images in the moment. I’m improvising too as I read – not the words, but the timbre, tone, speed and space, in response to the music as it evolves. The result is amazing and often results in goosebumps all round.

    After the show I’m often asked to repeat a poet’s name or collection title (even though I’ve announced it at the time) and people write them down, so I’m confident that we’re expanding the audience!

    If you’re interested, you can hear some samples here

  10. I wrote a piece last week on my blog comparing Country and Bluegrass music to poetry called Is Culture Killing Poetry? You might find my take on this interesting. 🙂 The blog is called Poet on Poetry was 1 month old yesterday and has had nearly 6,000 views. I would love to know what you guys think!

  11. Very much enjoyed the article, and the links to the music with poetry. Took me back a little to the Joan Baez album, ‘Baptism’, admittedly not only poetry set to music but also some wonderful prose, not to mention many great memories of live sets from Liverpool Scene with the amazing Adrian Henri. And more recently (though not exactly recent!), some very evocative words with harp music from Robin Williamson as a solo artist, which of course brings to mind the bardic tradition of music accompanying story told as poetry. Take your pick–I’ve found it all wonderful because, when it’s well done, the words and music work together to enhance the experience for the listener.

  12. well it’s a strange thing but as a wordsmith I have to admit that all my life I have found it impossible to take in lyrics to a tune…the music [notes and rhythm] totally takes over and I don’t hear the words.

  13. The first time I saw/heard Carol Ann Duffy was in Manchester in 2005 when she was reading from her Rapture collection. Each poem she read was then reinterpreted by Eliana Tomkins. I have the CD, purchased at the event, and would highly recommend Chinatown.
    I am not sure that musical interpretations of poetry will always work but I feel that this one did!

  14. LiTTLe MaCHiNe do it well. The audience at our monthly grassroots poetry and music club in Portsmouth loved the mix of classic poems set to music (especially Larkin’s This Be The Verse). There’s definitely room for this kind of thing – it makes a change from listening to performance poetry and/or poetry in performance.

  15. What an interesting dialogue. I feel music and poetry should go together, after all they share so much; rhythm, cadences, condensed emotion….but, I too, am not sure if something isn’t lost of each then they come together. Althoug I would agree that Dylan and Biaz are wonderful…their words were written as songs….much poetry wouldn’t lend itself to this medium and would lose through it. So….somtimes it works.

  16. but by setting poems to music they are totally changed. They make their own music, and are framed by silence.

    I’m playing devil’s advocate, to some extent, as there are some interpretations I love, like the settings of Joyce’s “Strings in the Earth and Air” and Shakespeare’s “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun”, but they are quite different in their effect from the poems that engender them.

    I particularly dislike the practice of playing music in the background, sometimes loudly and inappropriately, while a poem is being read. That’s really distracting.

  17. I perform a mix of my own poetry and music. Last Tuesday I was guest artist at Poetry Bites in Birmingham. One of the songs I performed works both sung and spoken, each version offering its own opportunities for interpretation. Here’s what a reviewer wrote: “… she effortlessly slipped between disciplines to offer a show, rather than simply a reading”. He described me as a troubadour. One of my poems is about the gently musical alarms in a neonatal intensive care unit. For me, music and poetry go hand in hand but I like to have control over both!

  18. When I was at school, I had the temerity to set some of John Donne’s sonnets to music. The scores are long since destroyed. I think they were vaguely Bartokian *shudders*. Then, at music college I set Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ for tenor, three part women’s choir and string quartet. Pretentious, or what.

    It can be done, if the composer is at least of a similar stature to the poet. I’m not, so I don’t do it any more. I do, however, write poetry — with a lot more success than I ever wrote music, so I suspect my intensive training as a composer has held me in good stead, but was directed at the wrong art form.

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