Poetry is surely the most musical of all literary forms. It depends upon sounds, rhythms, silences, form beyond content, to create its effect. Historically, bards were always accompanied by musicians when they performed, whether at Court, theatres, pubs, temperance meetings or working men’s clubs, a crucial component of an oral tradition stretching over centuries. Poetry and music have never really been separate entities, however many poetry books may sell, nor A-level literature papers demand poems be considered silently: it remains foolish and artificial to try. Where does grime rap end and slam poetry begin?
In the early 1950s the Beat poets began toying with African American jazz rhythms in their poetry, attracted to its spontaneity and authenticity. The sociological elements of the jazz scene were as attractive to the Beats as were the rhythms and fluidity of expression. Meanwhile, the UK saw the Liverpool scene develop, influenced by the Beats, with Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and others seeking to make poetry entertaining, part of the pop movement, thus broadening its appeal, even to those who wouldn’t generally consider poetry to be for them.
More commonly, however, poets of social protest tend to use music alongside their work. The use of music tends to achieve bigger audiences and ensure their message is heard. This was certainly the ambition of Gil Scott Heron, whose passionate poetry and angry political commentary was made instantly more accessible and catchy when layered over jazz and soul. In Jamaica Count Machuki popularised the tradition of talking over tunes or “toasting” in the late 1950s, having been infuriated to hear American DJs do precisely that. He wondered if perhaps he could improve chants and rhythms with the written word, and added story-telling, comedy and poetry over existing tunes in live performances, the words often tailored to the event.
In the early 1970s John Betjeman recorded four albums of his poetry set to music; Banana Blush sold extraordinarily well, and has been cited by voices as prestigious and divergent as Morrissey, Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker as influences on their own work. While Betjeman may now be out of favour as a poet, as an audio artist he has endured, even to the extent of achieving a certain cult status.
To read a poem silently to oneself is to lose huge swathes of its meaning and verve. It has to be read aloud, and who better to assume that role than the poet? From their voice, expression, pauses, lilt, you can often uncover as much meaning as from the words themselves. Increasingly at readings I see poets choose to accompany their words with music, generally of their own composition. In addition to this, many of those same soulful beauties are choosing to record their work to a soundtrack and release it in audio form, in addition to seeking to see their words published. It’s a joy to be able to hear poetry at your leisure, at the creator’s preferred speed and delivery. And what a treat for the poet, too, to use his own work as a resource for further creative endeavour.
Matt Chamberlain’s critically acclaimed work I Remember the Green Gaze has now been released as a CD as well as a book, with Matt himself composing the accompanying soundtrack. I wanted to understand more about the synthesis of poetry and music, so I insisted he explain. Here’s what he told me.
What made you decide to start adding music to your poetry?
A couple of years ago, Kent music producer Lenny Bunn decided to put out a CD of poetry,with his music or other sounds as backing, and my name was suggested to him. I was one of ten poets on the final release, called “Our words on your lips”. Lenny did it as a social experiment as much as a musical one, I gather, and I expect he discovered that we poets are much more diva-like than any musician. But the finished product was really good and I fancied doing some more.
How do you physically make the music you use to soundtrack your poems? How do you go about composing and creating it? Are you led by the words, the rhythms, the concept, the imagery?
The words and concept always have to lead, because they’re the bit I’m good at. I’m not actually a musician. But I am a wordsmith; words are the only instrument I can play. And I had been told many times before that my poetry is written and performed with some degree of musicality, rhythm, or aural texture. So it’s perhaps not a huge departure to add actual soundtracks. In terms of how I actually physically produce them, which was your question, I don’t compose. I assemble. I can’t write notes that make sense together. But I – indeed anyone – can assemble loops and phrases and ambient noises.
How is what you do different from composing a song?
Well, most songs have a structure, typically verses and bridges and choruses. Just as the lyrics are constrained by this, so is the music. That’s not a bad thing; we need songs to feel familiar and singalongable. But just as poems can be looser than songs on the page, so can the soundtrack. It’s an addition of another layer of feeling to the words, not an instrumental track
Would you ever consider writing a piece of music first, then adding a poem, or must it always be the other way round?
For me, it’s always the other way round. Otherwise I’d be both Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
What do you feel are the advantages of aural poetry as opposed to written poetry? Any disadvantages?
Quite simply, I think it adds a layer and therefore it can, if you get it right, add interest. The interesting thing for me is that this recording is based on poems from a book of the same name and some of the determined people who have bought both formats say they’ve had their mind changed, subtly or radically, about the mood or direction of the poem for the addition of that layer. On other occasions the soundscape confirms and underlines what the reader gleaned from the page. That’s the interesting potential of that additional layer, I think.
What do you feel the music adds to the work? I seem to recall your telling me someone had complained the music was a distraction from the words – what might be your response to that?
Some have said that, yes. And to a large extent I agree with them, believe it or not. If you get it wrong it can be distracting and even if you get it right it can feel superfluous. I feel the same about the ‘performance’ of poetry – when I give a poetry reading I tend to wear emotions on my face, contort my body and my voice but if you’re Simon Armitage you don’t need to do any of that because the words can knock people out all by themselves. Similarly, if the words are powerful, they absolutely don’t need a soundtrack. I wholeheartedly agree with that. But then again people can get a bit puritanical about these things. Just because words don’t need to have backing to be powerful poetry, that doesn’t mean they never should. Films were powerful in black and white – should we never have allowed colour? As I see it, it’s something a bit different for me and it’s been great fun, and creatively stretching, to do them. Eat my sock if you think I’ve killed poetry.
Do you feel the poet’s voice is useful in helping the audience uncover his intentions with regard to mood, intonation, rhythm and so forth?
For me, yes. Any praise I’ve received about live readings has usually contained something similar to that sentence. It’s a divisive thing though, apparently. Lots of people, me included, rate poets who stand up, read it straight, sit down again and yet still leave you gasping. Because the writing is so tight, so vivid, so perfect that you can’t doubt their emotions for a second. But others really do seem to act out their emotions on stage. I look like I’m dying when I perform. And I feel beaten to within an inch of my life when I come off. I wring out every bit of emotion, relive every pain or joy, and forget myself briefly. That’s never been a ploy, it just happens. And I’ve had some amazing feedback about that. So there’s room for different types of ‘voice’.
Hear Matt Chamberlain in his own voice delivering his magnificent I Remember the Green Gaze: