Setting poetry to music

Most of the music I like doesn’t have much to do with how I feel about the lyrics. While this is something I realized long ago, I still find it a little odd. As someone who enjoys poetry so much, it seems that a well-written poem set to stimulating music would be ideal. But with most of the music I listen to, lyrics just aren’t the main focus.

One exception to this is Morrissey. He is quite possibly the only artist whose lyrics I appreciate more than I do the music. And I suppose the bookish part of me enjoys all of the allusions to literature Morrissey often makes.

Morrissey was the lead singer for The Smiths in the 1980s, and the band wrote a song called “Cemetry Gates” (FYI, the typo isn’t mine; that’s how the title is spelt). The song contains a few references to literature, including mentioning three great poets: John Keats, W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde.

As I listened to “Cemetry Gates” the other day, I started to think about songs and poetry. I ended up considering songs that contain poems written by famous poets.

The first to enter my mind was Ben Harper’s “I’ll Rise.” His adaption of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” is quite inspirational, especially when witnessed live.

Rufus Wainwright set William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 20” to music.

The lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” are his translation of Federico García Lorca’s poem “Pequeño Vals Vienés.”

I also thought about Billy Bragg, whose song “A Pict Song” uses Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name, but I couldn’t find an appropriate video to post.

I wonder how musicians are inspired to adapt a poem into a song. Did the melodies pop into their minds when they read these poems? Or were they so compelled by these words that they wanted to somehow make it their own? Did they want those words to reach a wider audience?

I don’t know the answer, but my guess is that it’s probably different for each case. But I certainly love the interconnectivity.

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3 thoughts on “Setting poetry to music

  1. IMO Marr was the true unsung brilliance of that band
    Leaving aside rhyming reference to Keats and Yeats…
    Here are some more brilliant lyrics from the charming Morrisey:

    Girlfriend in a coma, I know
    I know – it’s serious
    Girlfriend in a coma, I know
    I know – it’s really serious

    There were times when I could
    Have murdered her
    (But you know, I would hate
    Anything to happen to her)

    NO, I DON’T WANT TO SEE HER

    Do you really think
    She’ll pull through ?
    Do you really think
    She’ll pull through ?
    Do …

    Girlfriend in a coma, I know
    I know – it’s serious
    My, my, my, my, my, my baby, goodbye

    There were times when I could
    Have strangled her
    (But you know, I would hate
    Anything to happen to her)
    WOULD YOU PLEASE
    LET ME SEE HER !

    Do you really think
    She’ll pull through ?
    Do you really think
    She’ll pull through ?
    Do …
    Let me whisper my last goodbyes

    I know – IT’S SERIOUS

    …wow

  2. I forgot to mention that I was glad to see Len Cohen in your post

    Others to share?
    Hmnnn…There’re SO many genuinely great lyricists out there…
    Hard to pick, really.

    OK. How’s this for more ‘Can-Con’ (in order of pref.)
    Neil Peart
    Neil Young
    Gord Downie
    Joni Mitchel
    Sarah MacLachlin
    Gordon Lightfoot

    …and I’ll toss Tom Waits in there so that it’s not an All-Canadian list ;-P

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