POEMS AND SONGSfrom Dialogues on Poetry and Prose
I’m a late riser,
and someone foolishly phoned before nine o’clock. I must have sounded more
dreadful than usual. When asked what’s up, I blurted out ‘my man has left me’.
I had been dreaming a Billie Holiday song. Songs are strange bedfellows. They
could be said to be the poems of dreams. You disappear into the delivery. I
knew how Billie felt and experienced a moment of empathy. Dreams are just a
flicker of the eyelids. They come and go but a sense impression lingers in the
brain that revives when you remember the tune. Even embarrassingly bad pop
songs like ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Moon’ are evocative.
Brecht made it very clear his lyrics for Weill and Eisler were not poems. But he preferred poster captions to sonnets, reserving his own for private use (apologising to his women for bad behaviour). On the other hand, Wilfrid Meller’s ‘God, Modality and Meaning in Some Recent Songs of Bob Dylan’ doesn’t mention poetry, nor Christopher Ricks in the ‘Keats versus Dylan’ debate. Bob Dylan fitting words to a musical idea in his head is simply a song or lyric setting.
Lyric settings differ in kind from lyric poetry, putting music into words. Verbal compromise is the method, the opposite to poetry. You distort words to fit them in. Understanding them is not necessary if they sound right. The music carries the meaning. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard argues that with Mozart’s Don Giovanni Da Ponte’s libretto is just an accompaniment to the musical communication.
Popular lyricists like Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, PG Wodehouse and WH Auden know their distorted words are going to be redeemed in performance. So it’s the singer not the song. Their lyrics rarely rise above the jingle needed to get the music off the ground. When they’re remembered it’s because of the tune, and its interpretation. Though Auden’s words to The Rake’s Progress don’t distract from Stravinsky, and PG Wodehouse’s for the song ‘Bill’ in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat were so soupy that Hammerstein had to beef them up so the show could go on.
I love the words in the songs of Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter, but not in isolation from the music. Howard Dietz’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is an odd case. The music is ‘didididido’ awful, but the lyric could almost pass as a poem. Only in Artie Shaw’s version does it work for me. The music disappears into the demure lighting created by the words whispered in the beloved listener’s ear. Artie lived the life of a serial seducer and was married eight times. Wedding the lyric to the music with ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was much more like love.
The true poets of song are Billie Holliday, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden, Blossom Dearie and Artie Shaw (at a pinch). How they can trick their voices to turn even the pompous or fatuous into something heavenly or hellish is an enduring mystery. I have several versions of ‘Tea for Two’ which overcome the lyric added by Irving Caesar at the last minute, and self-acknowledged as nonsense rhyming.
Day will break
and you’ll awake
and start to bake
a sugar cake.
Even so, ‘Tea for Two’ sings for me.
The poetry is in the delivery. Fat’s ‘You’re only slightly less than wonderful’ puts Hartley Coleridge’s ‘She is not fair to outward view’ in the doggerel house. Hoagy’s ‘Ole rocking chair’s got me’, and his ‘Old man Harlem gives me Sunday headaches’ mean more to me than Edward Thomas’s ‘Old Man’ or TS Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’. Jack Teagarden carrying ‘I’m getting tired of sipping wine and watching it bubble’ into ‘How did our dreams get out of line and end up in trouble’, has more poetry than John Keat’s beaker ‘with beaded bubbles winking at the brim’.
In ‘A Foggy Day’ Billie Holliday makes the most unpromising line in song history ‘The British Museum has lost its charm’ a fit prelude to:
How long I wondered could this thing last?
But the age of miracles it hadn’t past.
And suddenly I saw you standing right there.
And in foggy London town
the sun was shining everywhere.
Her shift from pathetic fallacy to the lambent figure in the landscape makes Wordsworth’s ‘All things that love the sun are out of doors’ banal.
So I tried out some verse collages, recording remarks heard on radio and making a poem out of them. So far yet it’s a bit hit or miss. As with an interview with a self-crazed American photographer talking about herself. I dropped a few words to make her ego trip rhyme in triplets but it didn’t work. It was flat. I listened to the recording again and realised I’d left out her expletives. She used ‘Ok’ after each self-assertive phrase. I restored the ‘Ok’s and suddenly it was a song. It didn’t even need any music. You could hear the performance. I left it on the page, the vibrations come off it without vocal chords. A song-poem. I call it ‘Ego Artist’:
Yes I feel things more than you do. Ok
because I want to more than you. Ok
I’m very demonstrative too. Ok
As a person I want to feel Ok
my want to the full. So the deal Ok
is that the bottom line is real. Ok
I have no need to see beyond Ok
what’s in it for me. Ok. You respond.
I absorb. And get what I want. Ok
Songs can be a disappointment when you write them down. I must ask Kevin Hough to sing it.