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Poemsinging

By John S. O'Connor

Like many people, my interest in poetry grew out of my interest in music. As a listener, I love the thoughtful lyrics of songwriters like Joe Henry, Rennie Sparks from The Handsome Family, Chuck D, Gershwin. Regardless of the song-genre, great lyrics hit me first.  My interest in reading poetry came about in a much sneakier way. I took voice classes in college and unwittingly sang art songs derived from poems. (One teacher marveled — in what I’m still not sure was a compliment — at my “gift” at turning any art song into a country tune). I had no idea that the German songs I loved were actually poems by Schiller and Goethe, nor that one of my favorite folk songs was a Yeats poem set to music by Benjamin Britten.  Here’s my audio version of this last song, Down By the Salley Gardens.

Interestingly, though, the work I did as a singer then is exactly the sort of work I dream of my students doing with poems today.  Where I breathed, how I read punctuation and phrases all clearly mattered because it affected the way I sang the poem.

Here is a copy of the poem:

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

Since the poem features two stanzas of equal length, and since so many of the sentence structures appear in both stanzas, the differences practically jump off the page.  My challenge as a singer was the same one facing any good reader — and so, in rehearsal, I really did the work of a literary critic.  What is the significance of the two locations?  What is the difference between meeting and standing?  What move has occurred between feet and hand?  What is the difference between love and life?  (This move was also key for me in memorizing the lyrics).  How does the move from tree to grass indicate the speaker’s emotional state?  What is the significance of the tense shift from being to was?  After that all I needed to think about how I might convey these ideas with my voice — a new challenge every time I sing the song!  This process, though, informs every poem reading I do, even when I don’t end up singing the poem.

Comments (5)

  • On November 6, 2009 at 8:23 pm Terreson wrote:

    Sure, John S. O’Connor. Shifting verb tense and image selection always do carry the narrative, or the story line, and the dramatic moment, especially with respect to the poem’s denouement. In my experience the key to making good use of the effect is nuance. Shift too obviously and the poem becomes a cliche. As much of a lover of Yeats as I am I confess this particular poem falls victim to obviousness. But I get your point.

    Terreson

  • On November 6, 2009 at 11:36 pm john wrote:

    Nice tune, nice arrangement, nice playing, beautiful voice — thanks for posting it.

    For two semesters in college I took Music Composition for Non-Music Majors, taught by William Bolcom, whose mammoth setting of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience” provided me with one of the great live-music listening experiences of my life. One of our assignments was to set a poem to music. (I set very short ones — a “post card” poem by Faye Kicknosway, and a brief bit of doggerel by the playwright Sam Shepard.) After the in-class run-through of another student’s setting of part of “The Hollow Men,” Bolcom asked the singer to read through the poem aloud, to find the emotional nuances; in short, to *act* the poem as well as sing it.

    That one suggestion was the most important thing I learned in the 2 semesters. Get the emotional nuance in your voice, in your body, not just your mind.

    • On November 8, 2009 at 12:12 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

      Bolcom’s setting of several Roethke poems, “Open House,” is a masterpiece. It’s for tenor and chamber orchestra; there was a Nonesuch recording featuring Paul Sperry, tenor.

      Bill Bolcom was one of my principal composition professors at Michigan, and later a friend. He was a gifted performer as well as composer, and often performed (and recorded) art-songs and popular songs of yeateryear with his wife, Joan Morris. (Again, there were several Nonesuch recordings.)

      I do recommend Bolcom’s settings of poetry quite highly, as he really did understand that to *perform* a poem, to act it out, as you say, is essential both to a proper performance but also to a deeper understanding of how to write music for the words, and how to fit them together.

      Most poets’ ideas about songwriting are biased towards the words, and often completely miss the point that what makes an effective song is not great lyrics but words-AND-music. It’s a synergy of parts into a greater whole.

      From the other direction, as Bolcom pointed out in your seminar, proper setting of the words is also necessary, and one needs to feel for both words-and-music again, not just one or the other.

      Joni Mitchell did an excellent version of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Mitchell is one of only a small number of singer-songwriters who I think actually deserves to be called a poet.

      Loreena McKennitt has done excellent settings of two or three Yeats poems that I am aware of.

      • On November 8, 2009 at 2:40 am john wrote:

        Another great live-music listening experience: Hearing Bolcom improvise blues and ragtime at a bar one night in Ann Arbor. Also on the bill were music professor and leading scholar of the music of Jelly Roll Morton, James Dapogny, playing his transcriptions of Morton solos; and champion boogie-woogie pianist (and singer) Mr. B (“real” name Mark Braun). Bolcom blew them both away.

        Bolcom knew and loved poetry; one of my pieces included a recitation of a montage of different poems I loved, and he recognized an O’Hara quote, and he told an anecdote, with a beautifully wistful air, of meeting O’Hara at a party when he, Bolcom, was a teenage music-prodigy college student, and O’Hara’s sweetness.

  • On November 10, 2009 at 3:03 am Kevin wrote:

    It’s so nice to hear someone else share their earliest love of poetry as mediated through singing art songs in college. My voice college voice lessons were doorways to poetry. I adore British folk song arrangements and art songs by Britten, Vaughan Williams and Finzi. Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs,” settings of George Herbert’s poems, exemplify that marriage of concert music and poetry. Same goes for Samuel Barber’s settings of James Agee’s “Sure on this shining night” and his masterpiece, “Knoxville Summer of 1915,” an astounding prose poem, really, from his novel “Death in the Family.” I’ve got to quote is all here:

    [“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”]

    It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

    A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

    Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

    On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

    May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

    After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, November 6th, 2009 by John S. O'Connor.