For both literature and creative writing courses, I like to use poems set to music in my teaching (as well as songs written as songs), which helps students hear (and sing) the music of poetry. Songs and poems have intimate links. It is interesting that in Hebrew, the word for poetry, שירה [sheer-AH], is derived from שיר [sheer], song. שיר also means poem, although the word “poem” has been Hebraized now, as well פואמה [po-EM-ah]. In Biblical Hebrew, I have been told, only one word speaks to both.
Songs are poems, in their own right. And possibly, poems were songs in the long, long, past even before Biblical time, sung before they were spoken, spoken before they were written. So, it is not surprising, today, to find many poems set to music or songs inspired by poems, with variations made to fit the music or modern language.
Paul Simon’s Richard Cory takes a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, and updates its images and language, while staying close to Robinson’s original (from a book of persona poems about different people in a New England town):
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
And Paul Simon’s 1960s version (lyrics in the sub-titles):
While browsing through books one day, still in high school, I came across Robinson’s poem and discovered that Simon’s song had roots. At first, I wondered what that meant about Simon’s originality. Yet, by then I knew that Shakespeare borrowed his stories and even some of his text from other sources. I thought, okay, cool. Simon reads literature. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a writer, not just a popular musician. And Richard Cory remains a song that I very much like. And a poem that I like, too.
Another, more subtle poem, Pequeño Vals Vienés (Little Vienna Waltz) by Federico García Lorca, inspired Leonard Cohen’s This Waltz, which is more closely translated from Lorca than Richard Cory by Simon. In fact, Lorca influenced Cohen to the point where he named his daughter, Lorca, in honor of the poet. Here is Cohen singing, with Spanish sub-titles:
And here, Luigi Maria Corsanico reads the Lorca poem in Spanish, with Tchaikovsky in the background and images of painting by Renata Brzozowska, a lovely combination of arts:
A little while back, I taught a first-year literature course at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. The first day of our poetry unit, I played Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza’s song based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art. Unfortunately, the only YouTube video I found for the song has poor song, so I use my CD of Broza’s Live at Masada album (where he’s joined by Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin). At the same time, I project the words to the poem. Here is the official audio site for an earlier album with a version of the song, which is not as good, but still good enough. You will have to scroll to the track for The Art of Losing, his title for the song:
For a completely different take on Bishop’s poem, here is a new music composition with piano and baritone, composed by Luis Passos:
For my course, I skipped Passos’ composition, and moved to another Broza song. words directly from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, If You Don’t Kiss Me. Again, I projected the words of the poem so the students could see the relationship between the original poem and the song:
David Broza’s Official YouTube Channel includes a web series from around 2010, Poetry from the Bench, where he sits on a bench in a garden reading poems by poets such as Lorca, Liam Rector, W. H. Auden, Israeli poet and his fellow singer-songwriter, Meir Ariel, in the original languages. Of course, there are a lot more videos with his music, too, well worth the listening.
Of course, my course also looked at Richard Cory and This Waltz. The students felt this musical introduction to poetry opened them to its pleasures. We enjoyed the poems and the songs together, and then reading poetry became more akin to listening to music than to an analysis and decoding chore. Yes, we did start to talk about the poems, the lines, the metaphors, and we analyzed them. First though, we enjoyed them. And the music helped, as one of the pleasures of poetry.
I leave you with Natalie Merchant (joined by Susan McKeown) singing Emily Dickinson, Because I Could Not Stop for Death:
© 2015, feature and art, Michael Dickel, All rights reserved