Monday, June 4, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Some years ago, I was having a talk with a Distinguished New Zealand Literary Figure. I said that there were some lines in popular songs which, if read in isolation, would be regarded as specimens of very good poetry. As examples I quoted “if ‘t weren’t for powder and for store-bought hair” (from W.C.Handy’s St.Louis Blues) and the line “before the fiddlers have fled”. Of the latter, the Distinguished New Zealand Literary Figure said that it could easily pass as a piece of T.S.Eliot. Actually it’s from Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. We agreed that there are times when the arts of the poet and the arts of the song lyricist coincide. And, of course, song-lyricists have sometimes become poets and vice versa.

            I won’t start yet another discussion on the differences between songs and poetry. Last time I did that, one facetious correspondent told me that hankering after a revival of good popular poetry, when there were so many good popular songs about, was like hankering after dinosaurs when the skies were full of  their evolved descendants, birds.

            Be that as it may, I think there is an essential difference between songs and poetry. In true poetry, the words alone do all the work, have all the impact, convey all the meaning. In songs, it is the music that does at least two-thirds of the emotional work and has at least two-thirds of the artistic force. And when I say “music”, I am including the quality of the human voice that is singing the song as much as whatever the musical instruments are doing. Fine words sung (or set to music) badly will leave us cold, while banal words sung or composed beautifully might move us to tears.

            This brings me to an interesting paradox. I have found that musical settings of very good poetry (such as Shakespeare’s sonnets – as opposed to those words he specifically wrote as songs for his plays) are often fairly deadly things. This is partly because the poetry itself is so dense with meaning that it cannot be absorbed easily by the ear. Simplicity is an essential part of the song-writer’s art. It is also because the more subtle verbal rhythms of good poetry are unlikely to harmonise with the more overt rhythms of music. Given this, I can understand why Denis Glover once reputedly fled from the premiere performance of an arty setting, sung by a tenor, of his poetry cycle Sings Harry, exclaiming as he fled “This sort of thing gives me the shits!” Here were his artfully-colloquial words forced into a musical straight-jacket with an inappropriate voice.

            The other side of the coin is that very good songs are often made with words that are thin on meaning. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when new albums came out on big vinyl LPs with big covers, some producers hit on the idea of printing all the words of the songs on the back cover. This became a fad especially after the release of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even at the time I can remember enjoying the songs and the music (be it Sergeant Pepper or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water) and then studying the printed words and reflecting what tawdry and often banal things they were on their own. This is one reason why I remain very sceptical of ageing poets who claim the Beatles or some such as a chief source of inspiration. They may have nostalgic memories of first teenage reactions to the songs. Fair enough. As songs they are very good. But if the poet’s art is with words, then there was nothing worth being inspired by in the Beatles or any other group of that era. Go check out the back of old album covers, without at the same time listening to the albums, to see if I am right.

            I want to emphasize that I am not indulging in cultural snobbery here. What I am saying is as true of operatic arias and Lieder as it is of pop and rock songs. There have certainly been great classical settings of great poems (for example, Handel’s setting of Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast). There are good orchestral song cycles which set to music first-rate poetry (Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings). But there are also first-rate settings of mediocre poems. I’ve always had a soft spot for Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, but I know that the poems which it turns into magnificent songs are, in the main, a fairly mediocre bunch of Victorian and Edwardian pieces. (My favourite in the Elgar cycle, the dramatic song The Swimmer, is a setting of three stanzas from the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon’s longer poem of the same title. Read the poem “cold” on the printed page, and all one can say is “Oh, dear!”).

            I do not have more than a smattering of German, but I have been told that German critics regard the Wilhelm Muller poems Schubert set in his great song cycles Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise as inferior specimens of Romantic verse. As for operatic aria, my great appreciation of the best of them depends almost entirely on what the singers and the music are doing. I could nail this point down even harder by referring to other musical styles (see how much less witty W.S.Gilbert’s or Cole Porter’s or Noel Coward’s or Lorenz Hart’s words are without the bouncy music that they were made for.)

            But enough already. You get the point.

            Now what about the other side of this words and music question?

            How good is poetry at conveying the qualities of music?

            My simple answer to that would be, “Not very”.

            There is the occasional brisk, heavily onomatopoetic, poem that actually contrives to sound like music (Hilaire Belloc’s Tarantella with its “ting-tang-tong of the guitar”). But when poets deal with music, they are at their best in reflecting on music rather than trying to vie with music in its own terms. Robert Browning’s A Toccata at Galuppi’s sounds nothing like a toccata, but is a pretty good reflection on ageing and the passing of fashions.

            Likewise the poem on which I’m going to fade out – a reflection on music rather than an attempted reproduction of it.

            Philip Larkin’s For Sidney Bechet, dedicated to the great soprano-sax man, has often been taken as the most affirmative of  gloomy Larkin’s opus, with its “enormous yes” to jazz music. Actually reading it more closely, you see it’s a poem about delusion, and the way intellectual white fans project their desires onto jazz.         Oops! This could lead me to start talking about myself. Just read the thing and see what I mean.

            Poetry ain’t music.

For Sidney Bechet

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes 

Like New Orleans reflected on the water,

And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes, 

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,

Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles 

Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers


Far above rubies) to pretend their fads, 

While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed 

Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should, 

Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City

Is where your speech alone is understood, 

And greeted as the natural noise of good, 

Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

1 comment:

  1. Writers who try to convey by their writing a particular piece of music or style are something else again. I find from this point of view that Anthony Burgess's attempt to parallel Beethoven's Eroica Symphony fails. On the other hand the prose of E. L. Doctrow's novel "Ragtime" with its staccato syncopated passages manages cleverly to suggest the ragtime style of music.