Friday, September 6, 2013

Poetry and Music

Some people think that poetry and music have an intimate connection and I think that was probably more true in earlier times. When I was an undergraduate in first or second year university I made the acquaintance of a poet by the name of Basil Bunting. He was in his 70s at the time and I was in my early 20s. I think I met him because I asked if I could sit in on a couple of classes. He was what in music we would call a "guest artist" or "artist in residence" based on recognition of his status as an important modernist poet and associate of Ezra Pound. For the life of me I can't remember anything about the lectures I sat in on, but they probably had something to do with Pound. I do remember chatting with him in between classes. For some reason he was impressed that I was a classical guitarist--probably because he was a big fan of Andrés Segovia.

The point of all this was that Basil Bunting remarked on how close poetry and music are. He gave a reading of his big poem Briggflatts that I attended and there was certainly a kind of music (lilt to the pitch and a real sense of rhythm) to his reading. Through the magic of YouTube, I just discovered that there is a clip of extracts of Mr. Bunting reading from Briggflatts:

And here is a link to the text of the whole poem.

Ezra Pound was also a lover of music and read his own work melodiously. Here he is reading his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

Now the interesting question is why are these readings of poetry not 'cool' whereas rap music is 'cool'? Is it the poetry itself, or is it the mood, the character? Rap tends to be defiant and sneering, while these poems seem to be more elegiac, even, perhaps, a touch maudlin, sorrowful at the horrors of the 20th century. Of course, not all rap is superficial. Here is Tupac Shakur's tribute to his mother, "Dear Mama" as an example:

And I think this brings us to Leonard Cohen, someone who is both highly regarded as a poet and highly regarded as a songwriter. Apart from Bob Dylan, is there anyone else that so dominates this niche? I've been reading Cohen's poetry recently and, while he is not quite Wallace Stevens, he is certainly a real poet. I highly recommend reading some poetry from time to time--if only as an antidote to the half-truths and outright lies we are surrounded with every day. A poet is someone who tries his damnedest to tell the truth, no matter the cost. But, of course, the truth is rarely simple and the truth is never clear so the poet tries to strike truth out in sparks, bashing words together like stones. Here is a poem by Leonard Cohen that is also the lyrics to a song:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom 
For trying to change the system from within 
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin 
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens 
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin 
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin 

I'd really like to live beside you, baby 
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes 
But you see that line there moving through the station? 
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those 

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you're worried that I just might win 
You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline 
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin 

I don't like your fashion business mister 
And I don't like these drugs that keep you thin 
I don't like what happened to my sister 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin 

I'd really like to live beside you, baby ... 

And I thank you for those items that you sent me 
The monkey and the plywood violin 
I practiced every night, now I'm ready 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin 

I am guided...

Ah remember me, I used to live for music 
Remember me, I brought your groceries in 
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

And here is the song itself:


Rickard Dahl said...

Back a few years ago I used to listen to hip-hop, it was basically the only thing I regularly listened to. In the transition period from hip-hop to classical music I thought that hip-hop is good for the lyrics and classical good for the melody etc. I think there's a point there, the point of hip-hop isn't to create exciting music in the sense of alot of things going on; The point is to propel the music forward using lyrics and indeed what's most important are the lyrics rather than musical variety. Pop music in general lacks both in musical variety and in lyrics, besides I find the singing style simply very ugly. I don't know how it's done but song in classical music is much more pleasing whether it is chant, purely vocal with several lines (medieval & reneissance), choir with solists & instruments (Bach, Handel etc.), opera, solo singer with more or less simple accompaniment (lieder etc.) and so on.
Anyways, what is typically marketed as hip-hop is the really bad kind which seems to be all about the money, cars, fame etc. But here's some hip-hop which is much better lyrically and of the kind I used to listen to:

Bryan Townsend said...

After having a very brief listen to the examples you linked to, I am once more made aware that pop music now is a huge area compared with what it was when I was first getting into music in the mid-1960s. Back then it was pretty easy to be familiar with all the important pop music. But now? I had not heard even the names of the artists you posted before! So I take your point that there is a lot of hip-hop that is different from and better than the stuff we are most familiar with which is, as you say, obsessed with money, cars, fame and sex.

I must remind myself to be careful, when critiquing pop music to not extrapolate beyond the music under immediate consideration.