Sunday, February 15, 2009

Elling Does Roethke Better Than Roethke Does Roethke

Popular song lyrics read without music are most often cringe-worthy. (For an evening's entertainment, though, you could do worse than gather a few friends and some beers and have the group perform poetic readings of the collected lyrics of AC/DC. Really. Imagine an earnest poetry-reading-voice intoning, "She was a fast machine/ She kept her motor clean ...")

Much as I love Dylan and partially agree with the argument that he's a poet at heart, when I read "Desolation Row" transcribed as a poem in David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry, it set my teeth on edge. If Dylan's a poet, he's one who should only be heard; on the page, his songs read to me as irritating doggerel: an obsfucating, unfunny Ogden Nash. It's may be the end rhymes or the fact that Dylan's voice and delivery can't help but crop up in my head while I'm reading, but something is utterly lost in translation. When separated from their sonic back-up, most pop lyrics reveal themselves as pap. There are a few exceptions, of course; many of Tom Waits' songs—especially stranger pieces like "9th and Hennepin" and "What's He Building in There?"—hold up, but Waits is a writer's musician. (If Lehman's criteria for selection were pure on-the-page success of a work, Waits should've trumped Dylan for inclusion the anthology.)

There's a long tradition of changing great poems into songs, with greater but still mixed success. Loreena McKennitt has done some great work here, recording versions of Noyes' "The Highwayman" and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot"—but due to her sound and the age of the poems, they seem like artifacts. Lovely ones, but still. A 1997 collection called Now & In Time to Be had Irish musicians setting Yeats to music. The disc is hard to come by now, but Van Morrison's take on "Before the World Was Made" and the Waterboys "Stolen Child" were well worth listening to.

Recently, though, I heard a musical version of a well-known poem that took my breath away.

Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," which with Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" and Bishop's "One Art" fills out the trifecta of most famous villanelles, is good enough on the page. But the recordings I've heard of Roethke reading the poem have always turned me off; his portentous delivery makes the poem into something overly ominous. While an awareness of death is central to the poem, his readings of it always seem a little stern, failing to capture its essential liveliness and the sweetness in it.

The poem took on a new life and beauty for me a while ago when I saw jazz vocalist Kurt Elling perform it. As soon as he uttered the first words, I was transfixed. It's an astonishly beautiful rendition, and Elling has real power in performance—a sort that seems to come from a sheer love of what he's doing.

My recommendation: Go to iTunes, put down your 99 cents, and download track #8 on his CD Nightmoves (try not to think of Bob Seger). Pour yourself a cup of something slow-sippable, and play that sucker, loud.

Or you can listen to the YouTube version, below. Let me know what you think—and if you have any favorite poems that have been turned into songs, I'd love to hear them.


Anonymous said...

i just think the imperatives of songs and poems are very different.
dylan had a lot of great LINES, but nearly every song is filled out by cliche. "Nobody feels any pain/Tonight as I stand inside the rain." pure cliche from the incredible song 'just like a woman.'
or take smoky robinson:
Now if there's a smile on my face
It's only there trying to fool the public/But when it comes down to fooling you/Now honey that's quite a different subject
... dreadful poetry. great lyric.
the words and music are inseparable.
similarly, whenever i've heard poetry set to music, it tends to diminish rather than augment.
... nice subject
-- mouse

M. C. Allan said...

Hey Mouse, I totally agree. It seems like snobbery, but I don't think Dylan belonged in that anthology. Patti Smith, OK -- the piece Lehman included of hers was an actual poem. But the Dylan piece was not served well by inclusion, and nor was the Robert Johnson song.

I know I'm a terrible Tom Waits partisan, but I do think some of his "songs" hold up on the page. But then, they were hardly songs to start with, more poems set to a little strange sonic texture.

Nice moody video of one of Waits' best here:

Anonymous said...

i'd like to borrow your waits sometime. i used to have nighthawks at the diner.
i've always thought of dylan first and foremost as tunesmith.
he could sing 'mr. tambourine man' in nonsense syllables, and i would still love it.
-- mouse

Anonymous said...

jeez, waits' 'what's he building in there' is a far cry from 'i'm so thankful for these friends i do receive.'
i wonder if david lynch filmed the video.
yeah, if that's a song, then a wrecking ball is a drum.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Great post, MC. Could not agree more with you about Waits. Soldier's Things is a perfect poem.

mountaingoat said...

I agree. Calling Dylan a “great poet” relies on the old bifurcation of “highbrow” art and “popular” (er, lowbrow) art. In the sixties, when the question came up, people (“laymen”) were supposed to be amazed that elements of classical music could be found in the Beatles, for instance—but amazed only because classical music was supposed to be “highbrow” and as such had a higher status in the society at the time. My own feeling is that some songs of the Beatles are probably better than a lot of “classical music,” just as some lyrics of Dylan are probably better than a lot of what passes for poetry. But this alone doesn’t make them all that great. Christopher Ricks says (in the article you linked to) that as a poet Dylan is as great as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. I’ve read somewhere else that Ricks bases this conclusion on the “turn of Dylan’s voice” toward irony or something like that, arguing that Dylan’s use of language is something new … Anyway, all of it made me suspect that as you suggested) pop music is so familiar to us, and the given renditions so soldered in our minds with the lyrics, that it’s almost impossible to make a judgment about the irony based on “turns of voice,” when after all Dylan does a lot of that shading with his actual voice. Maybe we’ve entered a new phase of poetry, where because of electronic recording we’re able to include this as part of the picture. But I still say that put a lyric of Dylan’s next to a lyric of, say, Hart Crane or (hee, hee) Dylan Thomas, and then decide who’s the “great poet.” That Ricks seems to be referring only to pre-20th century poets in his comparisons seems to me to indicate that he’s playing the old highbrow-lowbrow game, whereby he uses the category or “great poet” as a generic device for making his case. I agree also about this “Wake to Sleep” reading, it’s awesome, as is your blog, redhead.

M. C. Allan said...

Aw, shucks, mountaingoat. Thanks for the excellent thoughts. I do think that poetry (print, period) is changing, and I like a lot of the sonic/visual experimentations and accompaniments you can see online ... but I guess I would say that they aren't poetry, they're "poetry plus." Mixed media or something. If a piece needs a sonic or visual frame to hang on in order to be successful (and I think Dylan definitely does; the music and his wheeze is a huge part of the effect), it's not a poem even if it incorporates poetry.

There's also the time issue you point out: I think Dylan suffers more when you put his work next to his contemporaries, who were continuing to break all sorts of poetic conventions and play with forms ... next to something like Berryman's "Dream Songs" (which won the Pulitzer in '65) Dylan's songwriting on the '66masterpiece "Blonde on Blonde" just feels like things from another century. The songs are brilliant, but as poems, they'd look more at home next to Edwin Arlington Robinson's work (actually, some of them actually remind me a bit of Robinsin on the page!) from decades earlier ... that era's poetry was still much more tied to the same conventions that still drive music.

Word verification: Mullnet, which I can only assume is a hairnet for a mullet.

Anonymous said...

She only said, 'My life is dreary,/
He cometh not,' she said;/
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,/
I would that I were dead!'

comparing dylan to say, tennyson, quoted above, may be a deserved back-handed slap at tennyson.
i think there is an unfortunate tendency to accept the received wisdom about these 'great' poets.
i'm not dismissing all of tennyson and milton, but much of it is dreadful, inexcrable. and plenty of keats is unreadable as well.
but that's another topic.
-- mouse

Angela said...

I love this post and the recording of Elling singing Roethke. Paul and I lucked out and got free tickets from friends to see Elling at the Kennedy Center tonight. I hope he sings this!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.