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.
John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...