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.
- Hope for Cop 28
- William Bonar Poetry Prize 2023
- Peace, Peace! They Say but There Is No Peace
- A Few Updates
- Hocus Pocus
Archives by Date
admin arts bees birds Burnedthumb Charm of Nine Herbs Colin Will Cora Greenhill dark mountain Double Bill editing eurydice rising Expressing the Earth family fiction garden gardening Geopoetics haggards herbs home Jim Carruth Kenneth White knot garden napowrimo newsletter Norman Bissell Northwords Now photography poetry reading Red Squirrel Press review Sally Evans Scottish Poetry Library Stanza stravaig Tappoch broch the place of the fire The Territory of Rain The Well of the Moon unwilding walking the territory Wren in the Ash Tree writing