Monday, April 20, 2009

words, music, and poetry

What relationship do song lyrics have to poetry? Many people, writers in particular, I find, think that you write a poem, set it to music, and then there you have a song. I don’t quite agree with that, and as it’s national poetry month all through April, I’ve been sharing a few thoughts on this.

About the idea above, that phrase set it to music is most often spoken by those who are not themselves very acquainted with music. For one thing, it is a process that is at once more complex and altogether more mysterious than it might at first seem. Given that, there are indeed times when musicians do set poems to music, so to speak. When doing so, however they get there, they give thought to the relationships among words, music, sound, and listeners, and what the ideas to be shared by all these are.

For example, Scottish musician Jim Malcolm has made a song of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. When the poem came to his attention -- being a Scot, he did not grow up with it, as many in America do -- he found he couldn’t get ot out of his head, and the spare arrangement on his album The First Cold Day is the result.

Irish American songwriter Cathie Ryan was wanting to give her mother something to ease the grieving when she saw her mother's sadness when she returned from Ireland after her own mother's death. While that thought was in her mind, Ryan came across the nineteenth century piece Rock Me to Sleep Mother in collection of poetry. The music in the words called forth music in Ryan and she made a song, which is recorded on an album by Ryan, Susan McKeown, and Robin Spielberg, called Mother

American songwriter Carrie Newcomer heard music in the words of Quaker educator Parker J. Palmer, and made them into a folk Americana sort of song that, in common with the work of Malcolm and Ryan, adds musical ideas to the words and interweaves with them. It is called Two Toasts and is on Newcomer’s album The Geography of Light

Songs come in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes there’s music behind the words, sometimes there are words which are inside the music. Sometimes the two arise together. I do not myself think the idea of setting poetry to music is a particularly useful description of the song writing process, but where and how ever it begins, I do think songs and their makers deserve consideration during a month marked for the consideration of poetry. Those who are looking to read more poetry during this month, and encourage others to do so, may also want to listen for it.

you may also want to see

Carrie Newcomer on songwriting

season of change: music for autumn 2008

Music Road: Irish music, Irish landscape

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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