copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
31 March 2007
For a poet, nothing quite matches the complex
feelings on hearing one's words set to music: delight or disappointment,
furtive rage, swelling pride, open horror, a sense of being
completely misunderstood or wildly undervalued - or perhaps
some kaleidoscopic mix of all these elements. The more the words
matter to us, the less we can feel indifferent to their fate
in the world.
And we are not used, in our art, to dealing
with other people. We do not write for clients. We do not, normally
speaking, collaborate. We do not expect our words to be edited,
except by request and then only by a very small number of trusted
people. We make a thing and that thing, that poem, stays the
way we made it.
Many poets feel this is the only way things
should be, and that anything else betokens compromise. If a
poem as written seems to ask for, to welcome, a musical setting,
that is an artistic limitation: it is not a whole poem. And
there is a great deal of unacknowledged puritanism in this attitude.
If questioned, it quickly becomes defensive and it is hard to
find what the source of the problem really is.
Who was it who taught us to make this distinction
and say: this is poetry (good) and this is song (not so good)?
Not Shakespeare or Donne, not Burns or Tennyson or Yeats or
Auden. To hear his words sung would have been a pleasure to
any of them. Nor was it Modernism, I think, although it might
have been one of a set of bad attitudes that came in on the
slipstream of Modernism.
To go back: we make a thing, and that thing
goes out into the world exactly as we made it. Then we hear
it read by someone else, and we begin to have to face the fact
that our poem is going to have a life its own. Since that is
exactly what we want our poem to have, we should be happy for
it. It's too late to complain. A properly written poem should
have, implicit in its writing, the best indications as to how
it should be read - how it should be interpreted is another
matter, but the plainest pointer to how it should be read, built
into the text, is what makes a poem a poem.
How a poem should be sung is quite another
question, which takes most poets beyond their area of expertise
(unless like Blake they compose their own tunes). Some texts
which perhaps never expected to be set have proved most adaptable.
Who could have predicted that Whitman would go so well to music?
He goes well, perhaps, because of the largeness of his thoughts,
the spaciousness of his sentences, and because the listener
will be happy to catch the drift, not to have to attend to some
tiny, local particular of meaning.
Where a published text has been chosen for
setting by a composer, and there is no question of active collaboration,
the poet should relax and say: this is one of the adventures
my text is enjoying - I may not like the result but I am lucky
that my poem will, as a text, survive this sort of treatment.
And I do not think it is the business, by the way, of the executors
of literary estates to make difficulties for composers who want
to set the works of dead poets: these rights are granted non-
exclusively, after all.
It is when there are two living artists in
the room - poet and composer - and when a collaboration is involved
that questions of priority arise. And here I think that, over
the years, poets have conceded rather too much. We all agree
that words for music should ideally be simple, and we can all
see that many a song gets by on banalities and formulae. But
as poets we are not interested in songs that "get by".
We are interested only in what is distinctive.
But we are not indifferent to formulae. On
the contrary, it is the formulae employed that give us a clue
to the idiom of the song. For instance, all folk song is full
of formulae, which are the means by which a given song is made
memorable. To say that a poet has written a song in a certain
manner is not, by itself, to detract from the value of the song.
Auden, who wrote so many songs, employed all
kinds of different manners and idioms, including those of another
poet, such as Yeats. He didn't see idiom as a prison within
which each poet was allowed to work, one prisoner per idiom.
He felt at liberty to move from idiom to idiom, with an insouciance
born of an appetite for form.
And how symptomatic it seems now of the prolific
talent of Auden and Britten as collaborators that, when Britten
set "Roman Wall Blues" to music, neither of them thought
of preserving the manuscript. It turned up by chance recently,
but without its accompaniment, and the suggestion is that Britten
never wrote that down. He wrote the tune, and accompanied it
extempore, then moved on to something else.
So much of song has been lost. I came across
a book the other day called A Sailor's Songbag, containing a
collection of the songs sung by the American privateers during
the revolution. These were men who had been caught attacking
the British fleet between 1777 and 1779. They were taken in
conditions of exemplary cruelty to Forton prison near Portsmouth,
and in this case someone of their number wrote down everything
But even the admirable editor could not always
tell which of these (often obscene) songs was original to the
prisoners in question, and which derived from some printed broadside.
The broadsides themselves were ephemeral, and are now too rare.
It is impossible to distinguish between an oral (or folk) and
a printed tradition in song.
For a poet to forget about song would be like
living in a house and forgetting ever to go upstairs, or not
realising that the door at the end of the corridor led into
the west wing, or strolling to the edge of your garden and thinking:
there's a path over there leading down to the sea, but I'd better
not take it ...