“Poems are not ‘why.’ They are ‘because.’ Comprised of both question and answer they mirror music more singularly than any other human enterprise.” –Ned Rorem, “Settling the Score”
So much has been written about the setting of poetry to music that I won’t try to improve upon it here. Mr. Rorem is fabulously cantankerous about how the poet and the composer are both right, and both wrong, and about the difference between poetry set to music and lyrics that were never meant to be read in silence. My angle is a little different. I’m into music poems.
There are two categories of music poems that I write and like to read. One is poems about music, that allude to, analyze, or react to specific pieces of music or aspects of music-making. The other is poems that imitate musical form. In this post, we’ll look at the first category. Here’s a gorgeous music poem by Mary Karr:
If you listen to the audio of the author reading the poem, close your eyes. Even though I had read the poem several times over on the page, there was something I didn’t realize until I heard her read it: the ending sounds like what it is describing. My ears expected her voice to keep going, but it stopped abruptly, as if at the edge of a cliff. It’s chilling, then you savor the expertise of it. Very much like the perfect cutoff of a solo cello line.
In addition to being illustrative, this poem works in other ways. It contains its own raison d’etre and so, as Rorem says, it is “because.” It’s a poem about virtuosity that is itself virtuosic, and so it works on the reader-musician as a kind of meta-artwork: like a great concert, it makes me want to redouble my practicing and/or give up entirely. The poem is remonstrative; how could we forget that instruments are made of trees? That, in bringing the cello to life, we kill the tree? Karr is not the first writer to notice that cellos and women’s bodies are similarly shaped, but she avoids any shallow comparison here by using “shaped” in the sense of objectivity: having undergone a process (we are both shaped and smoothed). I’m drawn in by her honest intimations of violence. Often, the musical product we see in concert is presented in a luxurious way, plated, as it were, like a steak, a foregone conclusion. Karr takes us back to the butcher shop. We then have to reckon with where beauty comes from, and decide whether we can stomach the knowledge of brutality that yields the finished piece.
Taken with “Carnegie Hall Rush Seats,” I penned a poem in response. Technique is always on my mind, never more so than when reading or writing a music poem. But I was also swept up in Karr’s visual imagery and an almost kinesthetic sense of sway—both the feeling of holding and playing the cello (which I studied briefly in college) and the vertiginous feeling of sitting in nosebleed seats overlooking a stage far below (rush seats tending to be up there in the concert hall’s precipice). I don’t have Karr’s technique, and anyway my means of expression is different. But I tried to attend to some of the same details she did from within my own transported state.
A dying sound
(homage to Mary Karr)
How you could shout on paper my
wrist vibrated taking in the shock
of your quiet song. All those men
cutting down trunks and felling
women to get a cello in their muscled
legs. All the times we almost missed
transcendence for the ticket price, concert
manners scrimming mortality.
How could I forget that the windowed
hourglass was also mine? That instruments
are made of trees, tension, and age? Saints
beyond Cecilia wait around the stage
doors of their graves, calling like hucksters
like hookers, like gangs, asking me do I want
to practice because they’ve got just what
I need. Tell me again, it’s resin-sweet.
Here is a different kind of music poem, this one formed around/within a particular rhyme structure:
Clive James, a white Australian poet who lives in England, here pays tribute to the great African American trumpet players who bequeathed us our musical heritage: Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Cootie Williams, Bill Coleman, and Miles Davis, along with the Caucasian trumpet master Bix Beiderbecke, here envisioned as a kind of musical St. Peter at the gates of the hereafter. (For haunting historical fiction, look no further than Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, where the author imagines himself into the short, tragic, brilliant life of Buddy Bolden.) The poet even nods at Elijah McCoy—who eventually settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
But “A Heritage of Trumpets” looks back further still, its references to dying and to funerals reminding us of Biblical trumpets. The archangel Gabriel, recognized in the mythos of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is often portrayed as a trumpet player. The Battle of Jericho (Book of Joshua) was supposedly decided by the powerful trumpeting of the Israelite army. And Christian tradition depicts the coming of Judgement Day accompanied by trumpets. Thus, James’s poem reads as a kind of psalm, a religious song-poem bearing a message in its text and in its subtext. I wonder if it is a memorial, not only to the trumpeter-heralds of swing and bebop, but, in addition and in advance, to the poet himself. The narrator has that slightly instructive yet overawed tone of a minor prophet, someone who knows he’s a conduit for bigger powers.
Again, as with the Karr poem, the writing here exemplifies itself. “A well-timed silence puncturing the swing / Only to add propulsion” contains a tiny musical rest followed by a quickening of beats. Slightly less successful is “The lawlessness, the skipping lilt of it,” which, while it comes across as basic iambic pentameter in my head, does have more lilt in the author’s own reading. And the assonance of kit/lilt/it is a pleasant touch. Ultimately, this poem succeeds because it, like a trumpet fanfare, pronounces itself with clarity. The cadence is clear, the evenness of phrasing gives it stability; it’s bright but not strident. Like good brass, it has some darkness. Like a good funeral march, it’s never entirely dark.
A few years ago, by a series of associative leaps, I came across the album Four Marys, on the Chesky record label. Rebecca Pidgeon’s title track was my first exposure to both this song and the legend to which it refers. Briefly, Mary, Queen of Scots was thought to have had four namesake ladies-in-waiting: Mary Hamilton (the narrator of the song), Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael. Mary Hamilton supposedly became pregnant with the child of “the highest Stuart of all,” a child whom she abandoned or killed, depending on the version. The (probably fictional) Mary Hamilton paid with her life; the song is a series of her recollections and thoughts as she is led to the gallows.
The Child Ballads contain no fewer than eighteen versions of Four Marys. It’s been recorded by Joan Baez as well as any number of Celtic music groups. Oh, and here’s the sheet music for a solo piano arrangement of it I wrote for a theory class in grad school.
Stumbling upon a reference to a chilling old ballad one has listened to, sung, and arranged would be satisfying. Encountering it in poetic form, even more so. That’s what happened when I opened my copy of the New Yorker and saw this:
First, let’s appreciate the deluge of allusions, parallels, and puns. Green-wood/the greenwood of many a Scottish ballad. Queens, New York/Queen of Scots. Murder, Inc./infanticide. Heartbeat in recycled newspapers/the infant wrapped in Mary’s kerchief. Romeo and Juliet/the ill-fated couple of Mary Hamilton and the King of Scots. Three crows/the two crows of the, yes, Scottish ballad also, coincidentally, track #12 of the Four Marys album. Four Toms, the author’s winning play on his own name and fictitious namesakes. Second, let’s savor the way he weaves in lines from the original ballad, lines the poem’s narrator is hearing diegetically in his car in the poem, alternating with his own distracted thoughts. And finally, the way he ties it all together lyrically, rhymingly, rhythmically. There is both straightforward appreciation and satire of a super-mournful ballad at the heart of this poem that is, in effect, an appreciation and satire of the ongoing human condition. It’s playful and sad and has that shrug-like quality of rueful inevitability.
Whereas Mary Karr describes a specific concert in general terms, and Clive James sums up a lineage of musicians, Tom Sleigh does something else here: he reacts to a specific song. He makes art about art that already exists. This is what we call ekphrasis, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. Even better is that the song is itself rooted in an unverifiable legend. We can’t know if Mary Hamilton ever really lived, but her story is generalizable: a young woman taken advantage of by her powerful employer, resorting to a desperate solution that solves nothing, and coming to the worst possible end. Tom Sleigh’s story is also generalizable, and perhaps more relatable to those of us leading ordinary lives: we grapple with the elements from a place of relative safety, we notice the perils and crassness of life and reflect on our own character in the world. We hear echoes of the past and feel we’re not exempt.
We’ve seen by now that the New Yorker’s editors have fine taste in music poems. Time to get a little more personal. There is another well-known folk tale close to my heart, not included in Child but listed in Roud’s index, that made its way from Ireland to Appalachia. It’s known by several titles, including Molly Vaughan, Molly Bawn, Polly Vaughn, and, in Gaelic, Mailí Bhán (which translates as “fair-haired Mary”). Spoiler alert, it’s about another ill-fated young woman. This time, she’s the victim of circumstance and ineptitude. Molly (let’s call her) goes for a walk at dusk, takes cover from a rainstorm in some shrubs, and pulls her white pinafore around her to stay dry. Her boyfriend, out hunting at the same time, mistakes the white cloth for the feathers of a swan and shoots the woman he loves. The chorus of the song, “she’d her apron about her / and he took her for a swan / but oh and alas / it was she, Molly Bawn” shares that same what-are-you-gonna-do quality as “Four Marys,” frustrating for a modern listener. Whereas Mary Hamilton was executed for setting her baby on the sea, the killer of young Molly is never specifically punished–or, rather, his confession and feelings of guilt and loss are implied to stand in for any other punishment. There are lots of good recordings, my two favorites being by Pete Seeger and Alison Krauss, respectively.
The ballad of Mary Hamilton is partly in third-person perspective, partly first-. Mary gets to speak for herself quite a bit. But Molly/Polly Vaughn does not. It’s a truism of narrative style that first person gets us closer to the character, and I think it works that way in the songs. We have less reason to sympathize with Mary, yet more inclination to do so, than with Molly. Molly is wholly innocent, yet rather removed from her own tragic story. It’s the dude who acts and experiences. This got me thinking about the role of the singer and the listener. What do we make of the story? Are we moved because of Molly’s murder or her boyfriend’s guilt? Why is the only thing we know about her the way in which she was killed? Does she bear any responsibility for being swan-like, in the woods, in hunting season? I don’t truck with victim blaming, but I entertained the idea that she had some facets to her character, perhaps even foolishness, rather than being an entirely flat surface. I also wondered how the urge to couple, to kill and to die draws a rope line from the ballad down to our own era. The result is this poem:
I will take you for a lot of things but probably not a swan.
You could wear romantic garments in the woods
but surely not an apron, and if so, not perching
under a hawthorn, in a storm. Not that Polly Vaughn
or Molly Bonn deserved to be shot, no one does, but come on.
The swan can be different things: Leda’s rapist, or Camille
Saint-Saens reaching his blanched spirituality to the high re.
French, Irish, Appalachian even, it’s all a Greek tragedy.
Three swans, equidistant, ply
the still water just past the ice’s curve;
wind plays in the unstrung lute of bare trees.
Three swans, the border between winter
and water, and never once
have I thought of killing them, have I?
If the swan girlfriend is anything
like the crane wife, she’ll wish
for a bed soft as her own down.
If the rash young hunter is
anything of a husband, he’ll stalk
the stores until he brings it home.
By the time he starts to grieve
the song has flown.
This is where I’ve traced you, Moll:
to Erin. Native of the strong green
and rough rock, nearly haunting cabins
in your slack dress, real woman or verse, wan
Mailí Bhán, your love was out shooting
his mouth off, drinking and gunning
for home. You were gone over
the ocean—America—or only down
the ditch out of town, either way
white, either way far from everyone, you
cipher, you sweet long-lost moan.
A few things, without over-analyzing my own work. The swan, as a mythical/animist figure, can be either victim or aggressor. The Saint-Saens piece is “Le cygne,” penultimate movement of Carnival of the Animals. The Crane Wife legend comes from Japanese mythology, is way more uplifting though still very creepy, and was explored in album format by folk-rock group The Decemberists. There’s also a bit of Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Would it be too circular to suggest that Tom Sleigh, in “Homage to Mary Hamilton,” also makes reference to Stevens with the three crows? (Maybe crows and blackbirds are so emblematic and widely written about that it’s a coincidence. Or maybe we’re all doing an homage to Wallace Stevens all the time.)
One thing I didn’t attempt here was regular meter and a planned rhyme scheme (I always have a bit of incidental, internal rhyme, and sometimes visual rhyme such as own/down). Music poems don’t necessarily partake in the elements of music. They can, as we’ve seen. Or they can describe without exemplifying. Here’s a poem by Pulitzer-winning writer Tyehimba Jess about the blind pianist John William Boone. Among several things I love about this poem, it is the piano version of the John Henry legend:
I’d say this poem is in the key of D major, because it has two sharps. The first “sharp” describes the pianola, or player piano, against which Boone demonstrates his prowess. The second “sharp” describes Boone’s clarity of vision, as it were, his way of seeing/comprehending music by ear. Contrast that with the blindness exhibited by the men judging him, who, rather than praise Boone’s intellectual caliber and total dexterity, put down his playing ability to luck. There is such a lyrical canter to this poem, it’s begging to be read aloud. Here is my reading (with a rainstorm in the background). There is more to be said about human-versus-machine, whether it’s the modern version of this contest (digital pianos and recorded music, pop stars who lip sync to themselves) or the more general human anxiety that we will eventually be replaced by efficient robots in the workforce. Then again, this poem is the last word: nothing mechanical, however accurate, will give us the “lunge” and expression of a human player; the “science of touch and sweat” is the beautiful endeavor of creatures who are dying as soon as we’re born.
There are more music poems to explore, but for now, let’s pause. In the next post we’ll look at the second category of music poems: those that imitate a specific musical form.
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Beautiful and thoughtful analysis ❤️
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