Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carl Wilson is thinking about
poets who are also songwriters or songwriters
who are also poets
I can't help thinking of doe-eyed John Keats
gazing dreamily into the middle distance, having
looked up from his reading, his
face relaxed and attentive, neither
happy nor sad but
observant, and so
dainty and soft, and there's
an interesting discussion going on in Carl's comment
section, as different people
propose different poet-songwriters,
and one songwriter who's published page poems
as opposed to performance poems
although those can be published too
and also opposed to song lyrics
although those can stand up as page poems too
at least sometimes,
this songwriter modestly and charmingly
referred to himself as a
Sunday poet
by analogy with the old-fashioned
notion of
Sunday painter,
which was an amateur painter, almost
certainly of the upper or at least upper
middle class. Someone else
chimed in with pessimistic opinions
on the prospect of composers or shall we say
music writers
successfully setting successful
page poems
to music. That opinion struck
me as historically
Many of the canonical Greatest Hits
of page poetry originally had been
song lyrics, for
example the songs of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare,
many of the
Cavalier poets such as Sir John Suckling,
probably the Biblical Psalms,
perhaps the Sanskrit Vedic Hymns (I
should know this before blabbing but
I don't for
sure), much of
what anthropologists have published as
poetry of non-European people,
for example the North American Indians,
as well as the Medieval English and Scottish ballads.
It is true that
successful page poetry doesn't
need music in order to
but composers for centuries have successfully set successful
page poetry, going
back to Goethe at
least, whose poems inspired
generations of German composers. Debussy set Baudelaire,
Elliott Carter set Robert Frost beautifully,
as did John Cage some poems of E. E. Cummings.
It's a topic of keen
interest to me as
I have set several poems to music over the years --
one Shakespeare sonnet,
an early song of Blake's,
two Emily Dickinson poems,
an obscure Mother Goose poem,
and poems by Leigh Hunt (a friend of Keats's),
Samuel Woodworth (his once famous, since mostly
forgotten 19th century poem),
a now-obscure 19th century American humorist named Ben King
(though Ezra Pound put the poem in his anthology Confucius to Cummings),
an early 20th century Papago Indian woman named Juana Manwell
(in a translation by the should-be-famous anthropologist Frances Densmore),
an utterly obscure early 20th-century Michigan poet named Howard Dwight Smiley
(whose poem I found on a real estate company calendar in my parents' kitchen),
the American playwright Sam Shepard,
the Irish playwright J. M. Synge (a friend of Yeats's),
the English poet Edward Thomas (a friend of Robert Frost's),
the contemporary American poet Faye Kicknosway (a friend of my college poetry professor's),
an anonymous Kipling parodist,
and an anonymous piece of internet doggerel,
as well as prose by
convicted perjurer Scooter Libby,
feminist theorist and rock critic Ellen Willis,
and my son when he was two and a half, an email he dictated to his mom.
A lot of the verse I have set wouldn't make it into
most poetry history books but that's OK with me,
I love them.

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