Tuesday, April 14, 2009

poetry month: a view from the music road

Is song writing poetry? What about writing music? I ask because, during April, the Academy of American Poets encourages the celebration of National Poetry Month. One of the goals, they point out, is “to bring poets and poetry to the public in new and innovative ways.” Yet they do not seem to include musicians in their plan.

I think they are missing something. It’s quite true that there’s always been the edgy distinction between lyric and poems-- if you’ve ever read sappy “set your poem to music” ads, or encountered a shark like scammer offering to do that, you’ll understand why that's so. If you’ve written a song or a tune, you likely will too. Then there are the related disciplines of listening to the melody of a song without hearing the words in your mind, and reading song lyrics without hearing the music. Do that last and you’ll quite quickly understand that when words and music are written to go together, that’s most often the way the artist intended them. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts, necessarily, but it is different.

But then we get into the whole thing of traveling melodies, and traveling verses, and the folk process of changing songs and stories and places and the way words are heard in other languages and other times...all quite common things in a good bit of the music we explore here along the music road. Because most poetry, these days, is a written rather than an aural art, that sort of thing doesn’t happen much there. It still happens in folk music though, both by design, as in musicians adding verses or changing words from the tradition to make them more direct for twenty first century hearers, and in things heard differently in different circumstances. I’ve had occasion in recent months to hear two songs I’ve known almost all my life, Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee) and Shenandoah, sung in Ireland and in Scotland, respectively, with differing words and emphasis than those set in my Irish American DNA, but still the same song.

Whole books have been written on all of those ideas and processes, of course. My point is that all that connects to the role of the poet, the role of the artist, in the world -- creating, challenging, reflecting, questioning, wondering, and asking us to ask our own questions. Leaving aside the sentimentalists and song sharks, songwriters today, those who write music of substance such as we look at here along the music road, are the poets of these times -- and with a nod to the tradition, I’d add, those of other times too, those whose names we know, and those whose names we do not.

A subject with many, many points of view. Care to share yours in the comments below?

As for the usual links under You may also want to see--

You might choose any post along the Music Road and find something which relates to this theme, really. If you’ve favorites, I’d like to hear of them. Here are several of mine for you explore:

listening through the changes

Carrie Newcomer: The Geography of Light

Dual: Julie Fowlis & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Favorite Love Songs: Tuning Up for Valentine's Day

Cathie Ryan: Irish and American

Matt & Shannon Heaton: Fine Winter's Night concert

first sunday in advent, 2008

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Blogger Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

What a fascinating read, Kerry. I believe the National Academy of Poets has related poetry to the visual arts but not to music. I would imagine it is as you say: poetry and music must be conceived of together whereas poetry can generate art at any time.

10:14 AM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

thanks for your comment. I'm not sure words and music need tro be conceived together -- but when they are intended as a song that may be the way to understand them best. I've a few more thoughts on poetry and music coming together ahead...

12:00 PM  

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