Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fearless Asymmetries

If you start with great material you can munge it up pretty badly and still have a pretty good product; this is my ace-in-the-hole as a math teacher. Suppose I approach songwriting with this in mind. My guitar chops are improving rapidly but are still very much at the beginner level... I'm physically incabable of swiping much from the master players I've admired all my life (but I'm working on it and can feel myself getting closer like a change in the weather). But I can read (about as well as the next guy) and there's, like, what, five hundred years of English poetry lying around the place... so there darn well oughta be plenty of proven crowdpleasers that move me personally.

That scan, and rhyme, and don't jar the ear (in an offputting way; a certain amount of jarrage is what poetry is for...); in short, something I can sing. Now, David Byrne (to swipe from a master) said something somewhere to the effect that lyrics are just a trick to get you to listen to a piece of music a few more times. But they're actually a far more versatile trick than this suggests. I'm using lyrics to distract my brain from my hands so my body can better take over (they don't call it rhythm guitar for nothing). So it helps if I don't know the words real well. Open up Harold Bloom's The Best Poems of the English Language to a likely prospect and see what happens.

Well, who are one's favorite poets, then? Blake probably leads the pack and I turned to Blake first and immediately found one I could use. (But while I'm at it. Coleridge and Byron round out what I only now realize is my top category: English Romantics. [Shakespeare and his contemporary "King James" are omitted here as categories-unto-themselves.] Pope and Dryden before 'em ["Augustans"]; a few Americans like Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, and Robinson Jeffers; toss in American-by-adoption W.H. Auden... and that's about it off the top of my head. And don't get me wrong... these are the poets I've read at all... Crane's poetic output was quite small but I'm well under halfway through any of the others... never been much of a poetry guy...)

Blake then. Well, this guy was a prophet as far as I can see; stuff like Proverbs of Hell is more like Scripture than most Scripture. And what's this? "Tyger, Tyger". I think I read somewhere that this is, like, the number-one most anthogized English poem of, like, all time or something. Could very well be for all I know, too (if I admit that such a thing could be well-enough defined for there to be a fact-of-the-matter). Okay. Take a look. Here's the result.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Did he smile his work to see?

What immortal hand or eye?
In what distant depth of sky?
In what furnace was the brain?
What the hammer? What the chain?

And what shoulder and what art
Can twist the sinews of the heart
When the stars throw down their spears
And water Heaven with their tears.

Because I'm not gonna stand up on a stage and try to pretend with a straight face—or any face—that "hand or eye" rhymes with "symmetry". Anyway, this version is only half the length and "shorter is better" isn't always true but playing at the level I'm at right now it might as well be. So maybe I'll go ahead and learn it and maybe I'll try it out on some actual listeners. If not, no harm done. Blake won't mind.

Obviously, I'm not claiming to've done a whole lot here that should count as "songwriting"... maybe it's more like a remedial songwriting exercise. But, hey. Not only was "Turn, Turn, Turn" a monster hit in its time. Paul Simon had a version of an E.A. Robinson poem at around the same time... and Phil Ochs did a very moving version of "The Highwayman"... one could go on. So it may have been a really useful exercise... I am here stealing the master's trick of stealing some other master's words (in order to get on with the music).

I'm first aware of having used this trick back around the late Seventies when I began singing the ol' Gettysburg Addy while strummin' out a basic 12-bar blues (in E). I've done this song hundreds of times (though only a very small handful of people ever will have heard me do it).

Anyhow, it's my trick du jour. Open the book; choose a poem; pick a few notes... try and make 'em fit. Fail again, better. Bound to learn something...


  1. I like all the italics in your post. Makes it read more like a conversation. Text is so low bandwidth compared to voice, every visual clue helps.

    I should read more poetry. I guess I'm a prosaic kinda guy.

  2. thanks!

    i was impressed as a youth
    with j.d. salinger's use of italics
    in dialogue. some of it rubbed off i think.

    i haven't *read* much poetry.
    sure know lots of song lyrics, though.
    poetry's still in its great age
    if we count those....