I’m going to write here a bit, but if you’re in a hurry, I urge you to do two things. The first is to simply listen to today’s audio piece. I think that will reward you. You’ll find a way to play that near the bottom of this post along with my second suggestion.
To a large extent this project adapts other people’s poetry in the process of combining it with music I write and record. Occasionally when I mention this, or when the more general topic of a difference between poetry and song lyrics comes up, there will be objections or distinctions brought forward: those two things (poetry found on the page and words designed to be combined with music) aren’t the same, they’re different.
I’ve written about this here in the past. My conclusions in summary: the thing we call poetry includes a great deal of unlike expressions,* and many are comfortable with that. Why chop off “song lyrics” as an appendix of non-poetry or not-quite-good-enough poetry? Well, if we do that are we forgetting that poetry across multiple cultures began as an oral presentation almost certainly combined with music? Why would that precedent not mean that literary poetry, however prized and skilled, has failed to sing or express its music explicitly?
So, if I move past those differences between poetry meant for the page and poetry meant for performance with music, and seek to test literary poetry in that context, what do I find? Well, a number of things that seem like problems with musical performance of Modernist page poetry are often less difficult than they seem. Poem doesn’t rhyme? That doesn’t help one memorize for unaided performance, but it’s not really a big deal. Uneven meter or line lengths? Modern musical expression has long slipped the bonds of straight beats or fixed length of melodic lines. One can even up shorter lines with musical elements too.
What is challenging? There are auditory challenges. Texts designed for performance often take into account pronunciation obstacles and allow space for breath. At least for myself there is a general difference in attention between words heard and words read in terms of attention. If a word or image requires one to pause for consideration on the silent page, there is an automatic “pause button” in our consciousness, and this is not so in the ear. The richest literary poetry may overwhelm us when listened to, though performance itself may also illuminate things we would never hear on the page, even after multiple readings.
In the context of today’s piece, let me speak of another issue. Work for performance, such a song lyrics, thrives on repetition, or refrains. Rhyme itself is one of those matters of repetition, even if it’s not required. Refrain draws our attention as it combines with the rest of the performed text, allows us to more fully absorb one part of what is expressed, and combines naturally with musical motifs that also repeat.
When I look through a poetry collection looking for Parlando candidates, the poems that use repetition will often be the ones that seem most suitable for performance — but that said, many pieces I’ve performed here have no refrain, no repeating chorus. Particularly with shorter texts this can still work, but piece after piece of poetry performed without repeating elements seems too much of avoiding that useful thing.
More than 50 years ago, a pioneering rock critic Richard Goldstein, published a book, The Poetry of Rock, examining the possibility that rock lyrics of that era could be considered as poetry. Despite the title, the book did not wholesale advocate for the conclusion that they were simply poetry. Instead Goldstein noted, as I’ll admit, that these two ways of encountering words lend themselves to different experiences.** One tactic Goldstein decided on when dealing with song refrains in his printed examples to be experienced as literary poetry was to not completely transcribe the refrains in his versions of the lyrics. Instead he might just put them once at the end of the set of words. Making them the final statement on the page gave them emphasis, as repetition in a chorus would, without overwhelming the expression of the verses.
Working the other way, as I will do today, one can reverse this tactic. One can simply repeat a stanza, perhaps the first one, as a chorus, or at the end. Or one can take a line and make it a refrain, as I did with Sheng-Yu’s “Lament” this fall.
The Poetry of Rock? A Celtic representation of the ouroboros. This is a mystical symbol beloved by Jung and alchemists that is often used in graveyards. What does it mean? Thoughts differ, so may I offer one: Death can go kiss its own ass.
Did you skip to here? That’s fine.
OK, let’s get to the good stuff: this poem “Stones” appears in the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards. It’s a fine poem on the page, and I highly encourage you to experience more of McKiernan’s work there by buying her book or seeking it out via a library. Here’s the publisher’s link. That’s the other “ask” I have for you today. But “Stones” is also a poem of lyric experiences, it calls out to be performed with the context of its implied emotions shared in your ear.
And this I did. Besides presuming unilaterally to do that, I made one other adaptation in the piece for performance’s sake: I took a line in the final stanza and made it a refrain. Because that line is repeated now six extra times, I’m bringing it forward for you to make sure you notice it and its possible meanings.*** I could throw in some more paragraphs about what I considered those possible meanings to be as I performed this beautiful poem, but I’ll not do that today. May your ear link to your heart, and listen with the player gadget below —if your way of viewing this blog shows that — or this highlighted hyperlink otherwise.
*”Paradise Lost,” “Tyger,” “We grow accustomed to the dark,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” are all worthy poems we might agree. Are they less different from each other than some random literary poem is from some song lyric?
**I may be repeating myself to say this here in a footnote — but that’s part of why I do the Parlando Project: because I expect you’ll experience the texts differently when you hear them performed with music.
***Did Ethna intend that line, now a refrain, to reflect itself in those meanings? I can’t say, but perhaps not. I, who performed it, intend for those extra meanings to come forward. I completely subverted William Butler Yeats intended meaning in one of his poems this fall. Judge me as you will.