Music For Poets, Part Two
by Phil Hess
(Read Part 1 here)
So cool and clinical in his essays, George Orwell could still be funny. In “Poetry and the Microphone” (published 1945), he had this to say about the state of poetry in England:
Arnold Bennett was hardly exaggerating when he said that in the English-speaking countries the word “poetry” would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire-hose.
Seventy-five years later, we’re still asking the question: What is it about poetry that turns people off? For Orwell, it was clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t poetry’s form:
After all, if rhyme and metre were disliked for their own sakes, neither songs nor dirty limericks could be popular. Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a weekday.
Recalling popular early-20th century American poets like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, it’s hard to think of their poems in those terms. Nor does that description bring to mind a lot of more recent American poetry. Certainly there are examples, both then and now, of poems that strike us as obscure, precious or preachy, but that isn’t how I would characterize the poems that are liable to drive me away.
Anyway, as a possible remedy, or at least the start of one, Orwell recommended reading poems over the radio. Nowadays, there’s nothing novel about his suggestion and we have multiple ways of recording and distributing audio and visual performances of our poems, but what’s interesting are the benefits he saw in that activity. For one, it forces us to think of our poems “as sound rather than as a pattern on paper.”
This strikes me as invaluable advice that’s easy to follow: Record your poems on your phone, then play them back or send them to someone else to listen to. There’s something about the outer ear letting the inner ear know when a line is bad. If you or your listeners find a poem embarrassing, or you stumble over the words reading it, or they struggle to comprehend it, then it probably needs work.
Of course, songwriters do this instinctively, since hearing the lyrics is the primary way others will experience them. And of course the lyrics have to be singable.
Thinking of your poems as sound rather than just text might also lead you to write more formal poems. After all, why do so many songwriters still use those archaic poetic elements of rhyme and meter, repeat and refrain? Is it because lyrics sound better that way?
Well, whatever. I’ve listed below a handful of songs whose lyrics you might want to listen to and look at. I’ve put the songs into chronological order and included a representative line or two of lyrics (in italics).
For a poetry radio program he was involved in, Orwell described how they used music to “insulate” a poem’s reading, both to transition to it as well as away from it. This is still a technique used today with radio and podcasts, and it also seems to function that way in many popular songs, where the song begins with an instrumental or percussive intro before the singing of the lyrics begins, then trails off after the last word is sung. Most of these songs do something similar to that.
(Note: Orwell’s essay can be found here: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/poetry-and-the-microphone)
“Seeräuber-Jenny” (“Pirate Jenny”)
This clip is from G. W. Pabst’s 1931 film version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical play, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Here Brecht shows how to write about one thing while talking about something else as well.
Jenny, a prostitute, sings a revenge fantasy told from the point of view of a servant in a hotel, yet we can’t help but think she’s also singing about her own circumstances and possibly her former lover, Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), who watches while she sings.
Lotte Lenya’s voice, in this ancient recording from the early days of talking pictures, is sharp but haunting. “Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln / Und mit fünfzig Kanonen / Wird entschwinden mit mir” (“And the ship with eight sails / And fifty cannon / Will vanish with me”).
Despite the serious subject of her song, Nina Simone employed rhyme throughout, including a number of interesting half rhymes. We oftentimes think of rhyme as basically unserious, suitable for humorous poems and poems for children. But as A. E. Stallings has said of her own poems, “Rhyme is not an ‘ornament’ … Rhyme is a method of composition.” This performance is from 1965. “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest.”
“Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma”
Melanie’s famous song, performed here in 1971, has many classic folk elements: mild protest, humor, a bit of French, and a great big voice singing over an acoustic guitar. “Look what they’ve done to my brain / Well they picked it like a chicken bone.”
Quieter, acoustic music is sometimes thought to be more “profound” than louder, electric music. Maybe so. But occasionally you just want a really big sound with a relentless, driving beat. That’s what rock and roll was all about. Here the band Fanny supplies that kind of sound with a raucous performance recorded in 1971 for the German TV show Beat-Club. It occurred to me that vocals like these might have been what many male rock singers of that era were shooting for with their falsetto voices. “And someone’s gonna get burned.”
Before poetry, before language even, there was the human voice, whose sound undoubtedly influenced human evolution, as well as the particular directions that language and poetry took. In this song from Vangelis’s 1982 Blade Runner soundtrack, which consisted mostly of electronic music, Mary Hopkin (of 1968’s “Those Were the Days” fame) vocalizes in a pure, soaring voice to remind us of where it all began.
“One Of Us”
Joan Osborne didn’t write this, but it’s her 1995 recording we go back to for the definitive version of Eric Bazilian’s song. The lyrics are a great example of how to execute when
you have an idea for a poem: stick to your idea and leave everything else out, repeating or elaborating on the idea as needed. “What if God was one of us? / Just a slob like one of us.”
“Going Through the Motions”
This clip includes the opening scenes from the famous “Once More, with Feeling” musical episode from the 2001 season of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. Sarah Michelle Gellar is not a particularly strong singer, but she nails series creator Joss Whedon’s witty-serious lyrics with their clever rhymes. “Will I stay this way forever? / Sleepwalk through my life’s endeavor.”
Courtney Barnett’s slightly dreamy sounding 2018 song is a good example of how to write in a first-person voice without making it exclusively and tediously about that first person. “And I know all your stories but I’ll listen to them again.”
“Until We Go Down”
These days it seems like you can’t turn on a fantasy or sci-fi TV series without hearing a song by Mississippi-raised singer-songwriter Ruelle. Here the lyrics are minimal, without really any story to speak of, but the lack of narrative-supplied emotion in her song is more than made up for by dramatic flourishes in sound. In Ruelle’s recordings, the sounds are mostly electronic, but in this 2019 performance by Tuva Semmingsen and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, real instruments and percussion are used. “I need that fire just to know that I’m awake.”
Written by Phil Hess