Song of Sorrow, Poetry and Music

Rossetti was interested in figures locked in e...
Rossetti’s Mystical Nativity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s just call this a Saturday Song on a Sunday. I’m sure I’ve broken  the rules on this before, but usually I save the music and poetry combo posts for the Music Monday feature. Again, who said I have to follow the rules? It’s my blog, and as the old pirate says of the Code, they’re “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. So welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner!”

Sorry, I’m getting carried away again. Okay, where to start? Have you listened to the music of Elle King? Sure, “Ex’s and Oh’s” (despite the questionable punctuation) is delightful and naughty, but her appeal goes deeper than that play on words. You really should dig into her stuff. Sometimes the lightest songs end up on the top 40 charts, while the real pearls are to be found on b-sides, LPs, and especially in concert. And sometimes songs move me like the best poems. Something about the combination of lyric and music, the rise of a note on just the right word, the haunting harmony that somehow mirrors the lyrics.

A musician recently asked me to work with him in his studio. He was looking for poems to put to music, “the darker, the better.” But no matter how much I tried to politely explain that I am not that sort of poet, that lyrics and poems are not the same thing, well not usually, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I finally had to change the subject and hope he would not bring it up again.

You see, I cannot say that one is harder to write than the other, only that I am incapable of writing one, and hopelessly doomed to attempting to write the other. What does it take to find the right note for a particular word or phrase, the right chord that mirrors the mood of a lyric? I haven’t a clue. I haven’t that talent or tendency. It’s not that poems are easier, but they are certainly more selfish.

Most song lyrics will limp along without the music. They don’t have all their power without the notes that go along with them. Granted, there are the rare songs whose lyrics can stand on their own, but if we know the tune, we will invariably find ourselves humming it as the words are spoken.  And if we hear the tune that we associate with the lyrics, we are helpless to stop our brains, if not our lips, from mumbling out the words as best we can remember them.

Poems are on their own though. They get no help from he guitar or the horn, except as background at a coffee shop open mic. Even the percussion must come from the linguistics, the stresses and stops of the language. They must find music in the turning of the line, if not the meter and the rhyme, in the sounds a voice will makes to produce the language into something audible, even if only in our heads.

And when I write them they really don’t give a damn what a musician might want to do with them. They give no thought to whether a word goes best with f sharp, or what key change might best mirror the metaphor. They stand alone and leave that work for those who might have the rare talent of wrapping music around them after they have been created. They will rebelliously go their own way. This is what I mean when I say they are selfish. Or perhaps it is my way of saying, I’m no good at writing song lyrics.

Again, let me stress for my musician friends, as well as for my beloved poets, I am not saying that one sort of writing is superior to the other, only that they are necessarily different. They are mediums that can blend and work together, but they are not the same. This poet will never be a song writer, and I am okay with that. I prefer to listen to the musicians work their own magic, and if we can combine forces now and then to create an artistic experience, well that’s wonderful. But please don’t ask me to help you write a song. It will be a disaster, I assure you.

Some poems, Wallace Stephens’ “Sunday Morning,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Robert Frost’s “Birches,” Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and so many others, can move my soul in ways that I cannot explain. And granted, sometimes a particular voice can add music to the poem that brings a tear, when another voice might bring a wince.

Similarly some song lyrics will leave me cold unless they are wrapped with the music that an expert artist composed for it, the way the anticipation of enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will disappoint when you realize there is only bread and jelly in the house. I do not know how artists like Elle King work their magic, I only know that as I drove a dark woodland road Friday night, on my way back home from taking my youngest boy to his mother, this song moved me. It moves me in the day time on the way to work, or while I am washing dishes. It works somehow through the alchemy of lyrics, voice and music.

I will include two versions of the song, one live in concert, and one more intimate, and without a microphone. You can look up the studio version for yourself easily enough. Below the song I am including a poem by Mary Oliver from her book Red Bird, a book which my son Micah picked up with his gift card at the book store where we met up with his mother on Friday.

How do the song and poem interact? How do they respond to each other in their meanings? In their music? And how does the poet create her music without a voice, just words on a page which you read out loud or in your head?

Whatever songs and poems come your way, may your coming week be nourishing and beautiful, like these two bluesy pieces of art are to me.

Love Sorrow

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.

Mary Oliver, Red Bird

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