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Things That Have Interested Me

Song Lines

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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 they sang.

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 ...

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