The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.
Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
I have been musing on the Sea Swallows episode of Karine Polwart’s Seek the Light programme on Radio 4, and the relationship and the differences between song lyrics and poetry. I started my writing life as a folk singer and a fantasy writer (don’t even ask!) and my first efforts were songs both for myself and my characters. I was very influenced by ballads – the ‘muckle sangs’ of the Scottish tradition, such as Tam Lin and The Twa Corbies, and I still am. I learned simplicity and directness, and not to waste words on hints and explanations and ‘scene setting’. I realise too that I still think of poetic rhythm in terms of dynamics and time signatures rather than stress and metre, which gives scope for variation and complexity, and I write by reading aloud, because poetry is something you hear as much as read.
I wasn’t very good as a song writer, not only because my melodies were simplistic and full of cliches, but because back then I didn’t understand the demands music makes on lyrics. If we have to choose, I’m for the words of Mercury. I work really hard at words. A good poem can create links and resonances that overload a melody. You can go forward and back, pick up echoes, go slowly through a stanza, stop at a phrase or skip a line. You have time and attention for layers of meaning or step outside a poem altogether to enter a whole new landscape. And you can afford to make every word, every line, new and different. A reader has the headspace to pay attention.
Listening to a song is very different. Familiarity is important. Simplicity and space is important. Rhymes matter, because a good rhyme might be predictable, but it is as welcoming as a well-prepared cadence. It doesn’t matter if you have filler syllables the way it would in a poem:
The weary earth we walk uponKarine Polwart Rivers Run
She will endure when we are gone
because the voice makes good use of them. Words are there to guide you through the music, and the music is there to interpret the words. You may visit the realms of thought and imagination, but more likely you will find your emotions stirred and become deeper acquainted with your heart. Writing a good lyric is a synthesis, and requires knowing what not to do, how to create space, when to leave well alone. A poem that falls flat on the page (like most of Burns, as far as I am concerned) can fly as a song.
All this makes Karine Polwart’s work extremely interesting. She is braiding spoken word and song, stories that are more potent than anecdotes, music that brings together thoughts and ideas in a richer and more wide-ranging than songs. Words and music that Shakepeare sends off the stage in separate directions are brought back together.
It is peak bramble time, jam-making, pickling, apple cake and plum crumble time. The first geese are here, and the last housemartins are lining up to leave. The bird population in the garden has changed – the sparrows are mostly in the fields just now, so the blue tits have a chance at the feeders. The magpies are mostly bothering something else in the woods, there are starlings along all the roof tops, and the robin is noisily staking out his winter territory in the hawthorns over the burn. The temperature has dropped ten degrees over the last week, and I’m about to pick the last tomatoes and move the lemon verbenas and the scented leaf geraniums into the greenhouse before the frost. I’ll be stripping out the spent annuals, and sowing the seeds I’ve saved to jump start next summer’s flowers, and I’ll be making pot pourri and some dried flower arrangements to give us scent and colour through the dark days.
Because next week is the equinox, one of the tipping points of the year, and we’re heading for winter. I’m having a tipping point of some other kinds too. I seem to have shifted from ‘learning about’ this new territory, to ‘getting to know’ it. I am aware, not only of new facts as they come to my attention, but how they impact things I already know. I understand more about why some plants are thriving and some aren’t, how taking out all the stones from the front garden changes not only the drainage, but the feel of the soil, and I can hear when there’s a new bird in the garden. It feels like a more mutual phase, as the garden responds to what I’ve done – and not always in the way I expect. I had no idea the marshmallows would grow so tall, or how much shade the lilac tree casts.
And in writing, too. I’ll be in the house more than the garden, in my head more than the world. I’m out of the note-making, researching, puzzling, planning stage and into the real words on the page. Unwilding is still very short – less than five per cent of the total, but there are actual words! And more importantly, as it turns out, the next poetry collection has begun to happen. It is tentatively called The Midsummer Foxes but it is also going to have bees, weather, music, herbs and the moon. I have always wanted to do a ‘four elements’ collection, and this may well be it. I am embarrassingly excited about it!
I’m thinking a lot at the moment about ‘heritage’. It is a loaded word, often used to create barriers around places, or topics or art forms, that say ‘Mine! Keep out!’ Living in a culture that has been both colonised, and complicit in colonising other cultures, it feels like a minefield. But the concept is so useful, in so many different contexts, that it’s worth pursuing – with caution.
I watched Once Upon a Time in Belfast on the BBC. It was less of a shock to me than to many people who watched it, as they realised how much about daily life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles they didn’t know. But I worked for a while in a university chaplaincy which students from Northern Ireland used. It was a fully ecumenical space, which presented them with challenges, even at the level of small talk. You didn’t ask a Northern Irish student which school they had gone to, for instance, and you had to be circumspect about sports conversations. They were extremely wary about sudden noises, like cars backfiring, and there were nuances around place names that we didn’t always get. But it’s clear now that there was so much more to the conflict than we realised. I’ve just finished editing a poetry collection by Charlie Gracie dealing with his grandfather’s emigration to Scotland early in the twentieth century, and the impact the sectarian divide had had on his family over three generations – family estrangements, reconciliations, managed truces and the shaping of personalities. And my friend and fellow-geopoetician, Laura Hope-Gill, from Asheville in North Carolina, has just started a project called the Story Shepherds which ‘seeks to recognize people who have explored their stories and developed the particular kind of listening stories require in order to access their deep medicine for healing trauma and reconnecting with humanity’. This project grew from a return to her family roots in Northern Ireland, during which she met survivors of the troubles from both sides, who have begun the process of healing and reconciliation through their stories.
I’ve also followed the activities of the Sheiling Project, an of-grid learning centre in the Highlands. This is a place where people can learn traditional skils of farming, building and crafting, but it’s more than a nostalgic revival. These skills and this knowledge may be the key to living more sustainably in the future, as we embrace more regenerative styles of farming and land use, crops more suited to local food security, or lower-energy homes and business. The project has embraced the use of Gaelic too, recognising that much detailed knowledge of the land and people is embedded in the language. It’s a fascinating project, which deserves to be much better known.
And finally there is the Grit Orchestra, which opened the Edinburgh International Festival. This is an enormous undertaking, based on the work of Martyn Bennett, and I can’t describe it better than I did in this poem, which first appeared in Scotia Extremis.
You Play the Melody
You play the melody on the chanter
Martin Bennett, Grit
You play the melody on the chanter
on street corners, in pubs, in concert halls,
the basements of churches and salons
in exclusive buildings, in all the forms.
Traditional is classic, and a mixing desk
brings boxes and puirt a beul and beats
to reels and travellers songs, and the conductor’s
voice breaks as he says it. You play the melody.
We play the melody, of course we do.
We’re Celts, an almost imaginary nation,
undefined in history, and known
without blood-lines or boundaries or map,
but recognised in an upbeat by the lack
of reverence for the things we cherish.
We can make them new, and keep them safe
in one burst of music. In January, in Glasgow,
anyone can be Celtic, and we’re all connected.
There is a wealth of traditional musical knowledge in the work of the Grit Orchestra, as you would expect, but also classical musicianship (Nicola Benedetti played with them this year), and the inventive use of hip-hop and dance music. The Chanter this time got a makeover which sounded like canntaireachd goes to Ibiza, and it was mind-blowing. And this is the point. You have to know and love and respect your own heritage, but the boundaries, edgelands and marginal places have to be porous – open to dialogue and mutual influence. I will have a lot more to say about canntaireachd over the next few moths, it’s the most fascinating concept I’ve come across in ages. If you don’t know what it is, you can make a start here.
- The Words of Mercury
- The Tipping Point
- Remembering, Renewal, Rebirth
- I Have Brought You to the Ring
- Finding the Form
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