03 March 2008

Poetry Triggers I - Music

What flips you over into poetry mindset? A word, a smell, a glimpse of a sunset over the mountains, the feel of sand walking on a beach? Many times for me, it’s a song. It could be the music, or the words, but the winning combination is usually the right mix of intelligent lyrics and great music. Music not only helps me with novel writing, it also plays a big part in putting me in the proper 'poetry creation' frame of mind. Musicians with a love of word play suck me in more often than not. I’m going to discuss three artists who appear on my iPod as definite inspirations. I dug up a few YouTube videos with examples for those that don’t have the music wired into their brain. (For the techno-goobers… just click play.)

I love the complicated and complex lyrics of Bruce Cockburn, and Roger Waters. On the other hand, some artists can take those ‘easy’ rhymes and turn them into an interesting song, one that resonates far more than a glance at the lyrics would have you believe. Tom Petty manages to take rather mundane rhymes, and rework them into something with a raft of underlying meaning. A great deal of the impact of the lyrics comes from what’s not said, the things left for the listener to fill in on his/her own. Back that with a driving beat, and all kinds of happy poetic inspiration jumps to mind.

Ankle Deep

Well, they raised that horse to be a jumper

He was owned by a mid-west bible thumper

His preacher was a Louisiana drummer

Took all winter to get through the summer

The fieldhand hit the switch and stumbled

Outside the big engine roared and rumbled

The stolen horse spooked and tumbled

She didn't speak for a week

Just kinda mumbled

-----Ankle deep in love [4x]

He was caught up in a lie he half believed

Found her hiding high in the family tree

Washed his hands and put her cross his knee

She said daddy "you been a mother to me"

-----Ankle deep in love [4x]

(from Tom Petty - Highway Companion © 2006)

The video is purely a means to get the song out there. Don’t expect much, I wanted to illustrate how the music builds the lyrics up to something beyond easy rhyme.

I’ve mentioned before that I like Pink Floyd. Between Roger Waters’ lyrics, and David Gilmour’s guitar, I find plenty of inspiration, just not always of the happy type. That's okay, if I was purely a 'happy' poet, I'd work for Hallmark. The underlying dark of some of Waters’ lyrics is appealing in its own way, like a scab you can’t stop picking. Never easy, downright uncomfortable at times, the sly and cynical bent appeals to my inner poetic sadist. My favorite ‘dark’ song would have to be the following. The combination of these lyrics and the slow music always makes me shiver, and my mind switch to poetic contemplation.

"When The Tigers Broke Free"

It was just before dawn

One miserable morning in black 'forty four.

When the forward commander

Was told to sit tight

When he asked that his men be withdrawn.

And the Generals gave thanks

As the other ranks held back

The enemy tanks for a while.

And the Anzio bridgehead

Was held for the price

Of a few hundred ordinary lives.

And kind old King George

Sent Mother a note

When he heard that father was gone.

It was, I recall,

In the form of a scroll,

With gold leaf and all.

And I found it one day

In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.

And my eyes still grow damp to remember

His Majesty signed

With his own rubber stamp.

It was dark all around.

There was frost in the ground

When the tigers broke free.

And no one survived

From the Royal Fusiliers Company C.

They were all left behind,

Most of them dead,

The rest of them dying.

And that's how the High Command

Took my daddy from me.

There are numerous video interpretations of this song floating around out there, it’s interesting how the visuals layer a third component to my poetic duet of music and lyrics. With lots of middle of nowhere windshield time, I usually supply my own visuals to songs, but hey, this works wonderfully.

My all time favorite songwriter would have to be
Bruce Cockburn. I’ve been listening to him for … well, let’s just say over twenty years, and the man just keeps getting better. He packs his songs so full, the density smacks you right between the eyes. The lyrics, coupled with his incredible guitar playing are good for more than a few inspirational moments. I’ve got several poems that riff off of his lyrics, where the turn of a phrase set my mind spinning to a new direction, a new poem.

Cockburn paints some wonderfully lyrical word pictures. “When You Give It Away” from Breakfast in New Orleans is a good example.

“Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse's hands

onto the hard floor of day

I'd been wearing OJ's gloves and I couldn't get them off

It was too early but I couldn't sleep

showered, dressed, stepped out into the heat

the parrot things on the porch next door

announced my arrival on Chartres Street

with their finest rendition of squealing brakes…”

I love that he uses real words, big words, complex ideas and references with no apologies, hence the denseness of his lyrics. For example, this stanza from “Call It Democracy

…Sinister cynical instrument

who makes the gun into a sacrament --

the only response to the deification

of tyranny by so-called "developed" nations'

idolatry of ideology

"Idolatry of Ideology" How awesome is that?

Not to mention Cockburn has several songs that are fine poems in their own right.

“After The Rain”

After the rain in the streets, light flows like blood

I can just taste salt on the humid wind

Here comes that gasoline

Spreading hungry rainbow over shiny black tar

I'm blown like smoke and blind as wind

Except for when your love breaks in…

“Incandescent Blue”

I sneaked across the border

It was threatening rain

So I could stand in this tunnel waiting for the roaring train

And watch those black kids working out Kung Fu moves

If you don't want to be the horses' hoofprints, you've got to be the hooves…

Listening to the songs for so many years, it’s hard to separate out the lyrics and look at them as poetry without hearing the music resonate in my head. This song shows a deft touch with rhyme, slant rhymes, meter, etc., everything a poet should have in his/her toolbox. After being subjected to the insipidities of pop music downtown one day, I rushed home to inject myself with the antidote...

Northern Lights

by Bruce Cockburn

Sunday night, and it's half past 9

I'm leaving one more town behind

Mirrors are showing the day's last glow

As we're spit out into the jigsaw flow

Ahead where there should be the thickness of night

Stars are pinned on a shimmering curtain of light

Sky full of ripplings cliffs and chasms

That shine like signs on the road to heaven

I've been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains

And cut by the love that flows like a fountain from God

So I carry these scars, precious and rare

And tonight I feel like I'm made of air...

The final video is purely instrumental, just so you can ‘hear’ the poetry.


Anonymous said...

Write on sister!

And who introduced you to Bruce Cockburn?

Constance said...

I believe it was Tim Reilly when we were up in Buffalo. That's why I say 20 some years ago. He played the college. Of course, I should have credited you with influencing me towards Pink Floyd, Anon. :P
and Kansas, and Marshall Tucker, etc.

Anonymous said...

I bought my first Bruce C album while attending SUNY Buffalo.
Thought you might have played it,or stolen it from me....

Constance said...

Hmm, I seem to recall we didn't speak to each other for a few years back then- because we never saw each other! When you were in Buffalo, I was home, when I went to Buffalo, you were home - and actually getting a real job. Sort of. If you call state employment real work...

Of course, that doesn't mean I DIDN'T steal the BC albums from you. Not that I'd do anything like that. :P

Anonymous said...

"If you call state employment real work... "

My little sister...a troll!

Then again,maybe not,since you are "employed" by a state also.

And I use that term loosely.

Constance said...

Hey! uh... My state's smaller than your state!

or something... :)

stevent said...

I agree. Music can definitely spark a poetic idea. I once wrote the first few lines to a poem listening to a song and chatting with a friend of mine online, and for some reason, the lyrics and music just sparked the idea right there and I wrote the beginning to my poem, which happened to be about the friend I was talking to. I don't know if she ever knew I wrote that poem about her. It was the fastest any poetic lines have ever come to me. I write fiction the majority of the time -- I've written only one poem in the last year -- but I had a good instructor in a college creative writing class. His focus was on poetry, and I really believe improving my poetry has helped me a lot with my fiction writing.

Gabriele C. said...

There are some plotbunnies lurking in operas. Not so much the texts, but character constellations - the abandoned child raised by the Goths who turns out to be Roman from Endangered Frontiers I got from Donizetti's Belisario, including the name Alamir(o).

Constance said...

stevent - Poetry most definitely helps with other writing. You become more aware of language, meter, and all kinds of things in your fiction that you didn’t notice before. I think it hones your ear.

A good exercise is to write poetry in a form – sonnet, ghazal, villanelle, etc. It forces you to become particular about words and their placement next to each other.
Hey, my reports at work have even benefited. I told my boss I wanted to do case notes in iambic pentameter.. .and she said “go for it!”. Harder than it looks, 'preliminary assessment' is not very poem friendly *g*

Constance said...

Gabriele - My plotbunnies are not as ambitious as yours… or they need some serious caffeine. When I listen to opera, I get ghosts – since I only understand every third word or so, the plotbunnies figure I’m hopeless. Of course that’s when the gnome slip in. :)

(Still listening to Il Barbiere di Siviglia. When I'm ready to move on, I'll ask you for something with even more plot bunnies.)

stevent said...

Work reports in iambic pentameter, quite a challenge I imagine. I haven't written in specific poem styles since college. But I do think practicing definitely helped my fiction. I always felt Tolkein had a smooth, poetic rhythm to his language in Lord of the Rings, and his style influenced me a bit.

Constance said...

stevent - another LOTR book fan, hooray! I keep running into people who say they hate the book because "it's boring, all those poems and long passages"... which is exactly why I love it. The language. The sense of stepping into another world. Like Shakespeare, but with elves... :)

Practice definitely helps fiction. I probably wrote 5 novels before I got one I'm happy enough to continue with. And of course, every poem is a rewrite until it's pried from my hands. Some people go bowling, I play with comma placement and word order. :)

stevent said...

I think Tolkein's language is beautiful. He paints the landscape with words better than anyone.

I once read about an author (can't remember if it was a poet or fiction novelist) who was asked how much writing he got done on a particular day. He replied that he spent the entire day trying to figure out whether to keep or remove a comma from a particular phrase/sentence.

Writing can be that way sometimes. You can look at one sentence, one word, one comma for hours and think of so many different ways it can be rewritten and reused.

Constance said...

stevent - It was Oscar Wilde:
"I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

Of course, there comes a point when you have to shove your baby out into the harsh light of day - and quit editing. Not that it gets any easier...