Poetry Out Loud
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.And mark in every face I meetMarks of weakness, marks of woe.I had no idea where I was goingHow I lived or what I did hereThe yawning gulf betweenHangs like a rope from a wooden beam.— From City of London by the Mekons
Being neither a poet nor much of a lyricist, I feel like something of an interloper writing here in Poetry. For the last thirty years or so as a singer in the fundamentalist punk rock art project the Mekons, the occasional lyrics I have managed to cobble together make use of the long-standing Mekons’ technique: blatant theft and collage. It’s an old folk and blues method and if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan then it’s good enough for us. A Mekons songwriting session takes fragments from many sources: poetry, fiction (thank you, Herman Melville), nonfiction, lyrics from traditional songs where scraps and lines scrawled in Sharpie are bashed into shape by the band’s magpies until something emerges that retains only a whiff of the original intent.
It’s an effective way of working for a band who tries to write only when we are all in the same room and whose members are scattered across the US, the UK, and Siberia. Natural (a record we released in 2007) was “a celebration of ritual, paganism and sacrifice” which we apparently wrote “after drinking whiskey all night, listening to the rocks and the Stones, tuning into strange, old frequencies, and reciting lines from Darwin and Thoreau,” according to our press release at least. But you will find within it lines from or nods to Yeats’s “broken boughs and blackened leaves,” Baudelaire’s “hunters lost in pathless woods,” Emerson, the Talmud, and I Ching along with several others who may remain in copyright and therefore nameless.
Due to lack of time and money, Mekons recording sessions are quick affairs with little or no rehearsal. Often I sing the final version of a song a few minutes after the lyrics are finished and handed to me at the microphone. I then have to make sense of their meaning and how they fit the music. A singer has to use the sound of their voice and their phrasing to create an atmosphere, a little world, out of a few lines — and a singer for the Mekons has to do that with next to no preparation. My voice isn’t particularly malleable or ornate, and I have a limited vocal range, but I’m lucky to have good tone and an ability to project emotion in a low-key way. It’s doubtful I could work this way had I not spent so much time reading poetry aloud as a child.
Look up and see the casement broken in,The bats and owlets builders in the roof!My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.Hush, call no echo up in further proofOf desolation! there’s a voice withinThat weeps ... as thou must sing ... alone, aloof.— From Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Competitive poetry recitals were my first public performances, starting when I was about six years old and lasting until I lost interest, in my teens, after seeing David Bowie on Top of the Pops. Speech and drama festivals still take place all over the UK, though some seem to be part of a dying tradition. My local Wharfedale Festival is in its 109th year but now struggles to find entrants for its verse speaking classes. Perhaps the appeal has waned; children have other more exciting things to do with their time and would rather not stand in drafty Victorian halls with their peers, reciting the same John Clare or Emily Dickinson poem to an audience of invested parents and a few pensioners looking for something to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. My drama tutor, Angela Wayman, a strict woman who resembled a sexier version of Margaret Thatcher, would drill me after school in the stylings of Gerard Manley Hopkins or the structure of a sonnet. She would open the Oxford Book of English Verse, pick a random poem and I’d attempt to deliver it without stumbling over the words or messing up the meter, and with as much feeling as I could muster on a first reading.
Nowadays I couldn’t tell my iambic pentameter from my sprung rhythm, but when I open a book of poetry, if I am alone when I do, I always read the poem aloud to an imagined listener. Isn’t that the intention, that the words are written to be heard? The techniques I learned “speaking” verse back then are the bedrock of my singing now: how to convey the mood of the song, where to place the emphasis, where to leave space, where the rhythm falls or where to battle it slightly for effect, how to use my voice in a way that brings the lyrics to life and adds a new element — all these things feel like second nature. The leap from reciting Hopkins to singing a Mekons song seems a short and easy one.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.— From Spring by Gerard Manley HopkinsA sparrow falls through dawn-air-mistSet in stone, searching for a signal.— From White Stone Door by the Mekons
Whether it’s finding the right tone for the spidery Mekons lyric that has just been thrust in front of me, reciting Dylan Thomas, Ivor Cutler, or some filthy limerick in the van on the way to a gig, or watching Jon Langford (fellow Mekon) stand behind a full-size cardboard cutout Dalek while reading John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” in a shrill, metallic voice as part of our Metaphysical Dalek Love Poetry series, poetry and Mrs. Wayman’s stern eye continue to exert their subtle influence.