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.
Music from the grasslands.
Thousands of horses
will gallop through my dreams.
I never meant to write so many haikus this month! But we’ve had to deal with an acute episode in a family health situation, and I feel very fortunate to be able to grab some quiet time to write anything at all! Anda Union is the name of a Mongolian band we heard during Celtic Connections. It was a wonderful night, not least because it took place in the Gllasgow Art Club, a venue of unbelievable elegance. Do check out the website – there are clips of their amazingly rich and complex music on it. Ever since then I have wondered how Scottish music relates to our landscape and our sense of home – wind music? rain? the sea? What do you think?
- The Words of Mercury
- The Tipping Point
- Remembering, Renewal, Rebirth
- I Have Brought You to the Ring
- Finding the Form
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