Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poems Set to Music - Are They Still Poetry?

When you have about 30 minutes, head on over to the TED web site and watch this video of Natalie Merchant singing some old poems to life. If you want to read the "lyrics," you can find the poems in print at Merchant's web site.

The songs Merchant sings in the video are from her new album, Leave Your Sleep. The lyrics come from "near-forgotten 19th-century poetry." Near forgotten? You'll find e.e. cummings among the selections, as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear and Jack Prelutsky. I'd say this is more a collection of 19th and 20th century poetry.

In an article in the LA Times, writer Carolyn Kellogg considers if there's anything new here and asks whether this format enhances the poems in any way. Here's an excerpt.
Seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty, but that doesn't make them new and improved. It transmutes them as lyrics, but it would be a mistake to think this improves on their original form.
If you prefer not to watch the video, head over to Merchant's web site and listen to the songs. Then come back and tell me what you think. Is this a new way to listen to poetry? Is it still poetry? Lest you think me already a naysayer, I think it fair to warn you that one of my favorite songs EVER is Loreena McKennitt's version of The Highwayman.


  1. I also love Lorena McKennit's version of The Lady of Shalott. I'll have to check out the Natalie Merchant stuff if there's a Hopkins poem among them.

  2. As a musicologist and erstwhile composer, I'm not sure why anyone thinks this is new or a "novelty." Poems set to music are not a novelty, even today. A novelty in contemporary pop/rock music, perhaps (although even then I'm not so sure -- just because some poems are intended as song lyrics doesn't make them not poetry), but definitely not in the bigger scope of Western music's long history (nor, for that matter, is it unusual in other cultures). It's been going on for thousands of years, as anyone who's read Lord and Parry's The Singer of Tales, a landmark in the theorizing of oral history, will tell you. So aside from the fact that these poems are unknown, the form is anything but novel.

    That said, I haven't heard most of these poems in musical settings. I love hearing poems jump off the page into musical settings. I love the aural/oral qualities of poetry. Like McKennitt's poetic settings (my personal favorite is her version of Prospero's final monologue in The Tempest), Merchant's settings let the words speak more or less for themselves.

    As a composer, though, I can say that you need to pick poetic texts carefully. They need to have enough space in which to add notes. Cummings is perfect for that, although has been set very little because Cummings' estate has been notoriously difficult to work with. In general, I find my most favorite poems don't tend to make very good songs. One of the things I like about McKennitt's approach is that she lets the words pretty much speak for themselves. The music is fairly neutral and completely in service to the text. Merchant, too, in most cases favors a vocal-centered, folkish delivery with relatively simple poetic structure and instrumentals that stay in the background, at least when the text is being sung. I like them. But I don't hear them as new, rather as part of a long and illustrious tradition.

  3. At risk of monopolizing your comments, I forgot to mention that Hopkins, in particular, has been set many times. He himself was trained as a musician and composed settings to many of his own poems.

  4. Harriet,
    No worries about monopolizing--I find this fascinating.

    I guess perhaps I haven't asked the question properly. I get something very different from the poems when they're sung then I do when they are read. And I suppose when it comes down to it, as much as I love music, I love to hear them spoken. The rhythms are different when they're sung. Sometimes it's not as easy to hear the cadences and rhyme. I also think that some poems are meant to be looked at. The arrangement of the words on a page means something, or did to the person who wrote it that very particular way. All that is lost in the translation to song.

  5. I agree with that too. I do like to look at poems as well, and it is definitely a different experience. A musical setting is an interpretation. Just as I think some people read aloud better than others, I think some people set poems better than others (and some poems work for setting better than others). I am not wild, for instance, about Merchant's interpretation of the Cummings poem. To my ear, she doesn't get the sound of the original (nor, of course, its appearance, but that's a choice she made by setting it at all). It's a poem through a filter. The question is, is it a different experience when the poem was a poem first and then a song than it is when the song and poem were designed together? Sure, there are issues of quality among poems and song texts alike, but how much of the difficulty of hearing a favorite poem sung lies in the mere fact that we knew it first as a poem? What about if you take a song text out of its setting and read it as poetry (a la Leonard Cohen)? I find those possibly even more awkward, even though no one will ever convince me that Cohen's "Hallelujah" is not a poem. I can't read it without hearing the melody in my head. If someone were to read it aloud, I would find it jarring. But I suspect we can get more out of both poems and songs if we're willing to experience them in different ways.

  6. I am on my way over the NM's site to hear her version of the poems but I wanted to stop and leave two comments.

    1) Loreena McKennitt's The Highwayman is amazing and always gives me chills.

    2) When I read poetry I prefer my own internal voice. I will never forget the first time I listened to In their own voices: A century of recorded poetry (Rhino 1996) and having some of my favorite poems marred by hearing it in a voice I didn't like. Sad but true.

  7. Thank you for this post. I enjoy poetry in all of its interpretations; to hear what musicians hear and see what artists understand when given the same poem intrigues me to no end. When my children were small, I bought two lovely and folk-y CDs of classic poetry set to music, and I still love them.
    Reading in my own voice and mind offers one gift while hearing poems to music, another. Now I have two new CDs to purchase...thank you, Tricia!

  8. In grad school (creative writing - poetry) we struggled to come up with lyrics that we thought worked as poems, on the page, without the music. All the usuals were brought in - Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, etc. But take the music away, put the words on paper, and the songs stopped breathing (though I thought Danny Boy was fairly successful.) In addition, it was VERY hard to look at the words on the page without hearing at least the faint echo of the music, so we never felt completely objective. The other way around was a bit more successful - moving some poems over to lyrics. That might have been because we knew less about music and how it works than about poetry! I think the more you know about one or the other, the less the experiment works....?

  9. Huh! I like Natalie Merchant, but I have to laugh at the idea of these being "near forgotten." (She needs to roll her eyes at the people who package her work. These are still poems - and I agree that putting them to music simply adds to the tradition of how people give different life to words. SO many hymns were once poems and then someone, a hundred years later, set them to someone else's music, and then we could all enjoy and memorize them more easily. I say, Go Natalie.