Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary poetry and music

telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
(from “Homecoming” by Bruce Dawe)

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a private function at which a small, local, male a capella group, the Pocket Score Company, performed. Their repertoire is primarily early music (medieval and Renaissance) but last night they also sang one modern composition set to a poem by Australian poet Bruce Dawe. The poem, bitterly titled “Homecoming” (1968), is about the bodies of soldiers being brought home from Vietnam. The composer is, I believe, Philip Griffin. As far as I can work out, he was born in England, grew up in Western Australia and now lives in New Zealand but info about him is pretty minimal.

My main point here, though, is not Philip Griffin but the close relationship between poetry and music. I often hear people who love to read say they’d like to read poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, but find it difficult … and it sure can be, but, set to music, poetry can suddenly become way more comprehensible. There is a lot of synergy between poetry and music – just think ballads, for a start – and I have touched on the poetry-music relationship in past posts on musical ensembles. Today, though, I decided to do a quick Internet search to see what else I could find. One exciting idea I discovered was the Pure Poetry Project  which was established by Bronwyn Blaiklock and the Ballarat Writers Inc.

The first Pure Poetry event occurred in 2004 and focused on the performance of new poetry and new music rather than expressly requiring a crossover between the two. However, this year, it was decided to specifically encourage integration between the two art forms:

selected poets and composers have been asked to write specific new works in a two-part process. In the first part composers have been asked to musically respond to recently written poems, whilst poets have been asked to respond to recently composed works. The second part of the process is more of a direct collaboration where poet and composer work together to create a new work. (Anthony Lyons, composer)

The recital took place in May this year, in Ballarat. It sounds like an exciting event and I would love to have been there.

Australian poet Les Murray, photographed at hi...

Les Murray, 2004 (Courtesy: Brian Jenkins, using CC-BY 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Another exciting project combining contemporary poetry and music is that between The Song Company (whom I’ve reviewed here before) and Australian poet Les Murray, in which composers from around the world have set selected Murray poems to music. One of the composers, Andrew Ford, asked Murray many years ago about an early collaboration with the Song Company and his view on the relationship between poetry and music. Murray said:

… My wife’s very musical, and some of the family are, and I think all of the Murrays believe that music was the art that mattered. I’ve always had rather a poor ear I think and tried to make music out of words. But I have this instinct to stretch words out to the edge, where they start crumbling away in music. […] I’d love to write a good song, and particularly a good hymn before I check out of this profession. But yes, we’re all hovering on the edge of music, we’re always hovering on the edge of all the other arts I guess. Dance, for one; a lot of dance underlies poetry.

Finally, another musical ensemble I have reviewed here before, the Griffyn Ensemble, also regularly performs modern poetry set to music, and sometimes poetry recited alongside music, at their concerts.

None of these ideas are new of course. Poetry has been set to music for centuries and it clearly still is – but it can be hard to find, party because it may not be promoted as such. I’d love to hear of other collaborations and events, in Australia or elsewhere.

13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary poetry and music

  1. Poetry and music do go hand in hand don’t they? Long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away when I was a teaching assistant in grad school teaching freshman composition, I tried an in-class exercise using fairly well known song lyrics as poems and asked the students to write a short reader response on the “poem” since I knew they were all terrified of “real” poetry. It didn’t work very well, mostly, I think, due to my inexperience. An exercise that did work and I used more than once to get students to work on description was to bring in a variety of evocative music and have them write a descriptive paragraph of whatever came to mind. I think some of the students rather surprised themselves with what they came up with. Not poetry, but sometimes it was on its way there.

    • Oh thanks for sharing this Stefanie … it’s nice to know a bit of your past and to hear your story. Sounds like you were a creative teacher. Many songs really are poetry aren’t they – or, there’s such a fine line. Leonard Cohen’s songs, for example.

  2. I’ll think about it more, but the first collaboration that springs to mind is the swing jazz version of Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd, ending with a few lines of Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, at the start of Richard II, the 1995 film version with Ian McKellan as Richard — moving the audience aurally as well as visually into the fantasy hybrid 1930s-1500s life they have to live until McKellen starts shouting for horses and bang bang bang and then the end credits roll.

    Sung by Stacey Kent, after an instrumental intro of about two minutes and fifteen seconds.

    • And the second collaboration that springs to mind is the one between Sigur Ros and the rimur singer Steindór Andersen. But Andersen’s whole tradition is sung poetry, rimur itself is sung poetry, and, “The earliest rímur date from the fourteenth century, evolving from eddaic poetry and skaldic poetry with influences from Continental epic poems,” says Wikipedia. “And although they frequently have little poetic value and sometimes even border on complete tastelessness, they have demonstrated with their tenacity that they satisfy the needs of the nation peculiarly well,” adds the Icelandic professor Sigurður Nordal, who liked to study the sagas.

      • Thanks for this too … I haven’t heard of rimur poetry (or, at least, it rings a vague bell but I wouldn’t have been able to describe it if someone had asked). I love the description of the poetry as satisfying the needs of the nation, even if they frequently have little poetic value!

    • Thanks DKS … I didn’t see this movie but loved this intro. Also, it reminded me of a blast from my past when a housemate introduced me to Cleo Laine’s Shakespeare and all that jazz. Not contemporary poetry … but the combination was great. I think I’ll have to buy it for my iTunes.

  3. I love this idea! I love this post. I love poetry and music and the synergies between them. I love that music is a part of my life again and that I’m also feeling the pull to write poetry too. Love love love!

    • And you know how I feel about copyright! Good point Lisa – the music industry is so much stronger on this issue. Thanks for the link to this. It certainly drives the point home beautifully.

  4. I think the idea of a music and poetry evening is just perfect, particularly when it involves a capella singing too. Back in the 60s there was a group in England called the Barrow Poets who produced albums of poems and music and were quiet successful performers for a time. Very few of us get the chance to hear poetry read well but the Internet is making it easier. The BBC for example have a site of poets reading their own work here

    • Thanks for that link Tom. I have attended poets reading their poems here and always enjoy it. It’s another great way of better understanding poetry isn’t it, particularly when poets are good readers. They know how they want it to sound. The Barrow Poets sound interesting … I will Google when I have time or check You tube.

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