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.