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Poetry And Music Are More Closely Related Than We Think
written by: Cerys Matthews
The Welsh word “cerdd” can be translated as either “verse” or “music”. It covers both meanings, because, as we know from history, when the great bards were performing their poetry it would be accompanied by music. The two were always intertwined and music, poetry, spoken word and performance have been a part of our society for centuries. The festivals called “eisteddfod” combine literature, music and poetry. These cultural competitions were not just for the rich or educated, but were held in pubs and other meeting places and brought everyone together. They are part of an oral tradition entrenched in Welsh society as it is in many other cultures, as diverse as the Somali tradition of oral storytelling or praise poetry in India and Pakistan.
The Poet in the City festival of Poetry and Lyrics is another way of bringing people together and highlighting the idea that poetry and music are not, and have never really been, separate. The events will delve into the nooks and crannies of many different genres to draw out this connection and show how it lives in unexpected places. Take punk, for example: with the exception of artists such as Patti Smith, it’s not usually associated with poetry. But Steve Lamacq, along with the Adverts’ TV Smith, Pauline Murray of Penetration and Crass’s Penny Rimbaud, will consider a less celebrated side of the movement: the lyrics about tenderness, love and social commentary that articulated a generation’s experience of the world. It is work that fits easily into a poetic tradition.
Elsewhere we only have to go to children’s poetry and nursery rhymes for more evidence. The playfulness of poetic language makes much more sense to them and provides a highly imaginative means of connecting with the world – they don’t question it, and the music sticks with them. John Hegley will be exploring this in his PO-NG (poem-song) writing workshop for families.
Another interesting angle is to ask what are the characteristics of those poems that entice composers to set them to music. So many classical musicians have adapted writers such as AE Housman or Walt Whitman, but composers of music from folk to soul have done the same.
Does it work so well the other way? Poems might function well as lyrics, but can lyrics be read as poetry? I suspect it’s harder. The structure of song and lyric can be quite specific to that song. Songs often rely on repetition. But however you view it, whether listening to song or poem, there is an endless fascination in the power of words, in the impact of a perfect turn of phrase. Take the work of the great lyricist Don Black, someone who sees the issue as black and white and for whom a lyric is a lyric and poetry is something else entirely. There is a line in his song “Born Free”: “Stay free, where no walls divide you”. I’ve heard it and read it so often. And every time it floors me.
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