April 19, 2003
Two Writers Hear the Music of Poetry
Charles Coe and Sean Singer are very different poets, but they share
music's strong imprint on their lives and their work. Coe is the
author of Picnic on the Moon and winner of a Massachusetts Cultural
Council Poetry Fellowship. But, before deciding that his real passion
was writing, he started out as a singer, a soloist performing his
own compositions while playing acoustic guitar, a front man for
a Nashville rock group, and a jazz vocalist with several New England
Singer writes poetry that has music at its core, whether he is writing
in a blues-inspired rhythm, paying homage to old records ("100
grooves to the centimeter"), or riffing on the musical implications
of his name. His book, Discography, was the 2001 volume of the Yale
Series of Younger Poets and won the Norma Farber First Book Award.
from the Poetry Society of America.
The combination of poetry and music is a natural. Poetry's music,
from its spoken-word origins to classical rhyme and meter to the
hip-hop rhythms of contemporary performance, grabs us viscerally
and enlarges the impact of its words.
"Writing poetry and writing music have a lot of similarities,
says Coe. "Songs have a more conventional structure, with meter
and rhyme, but there is rhythm and flow to poetry, too.
"There is a greater range of topics in poetry--at least in
what I write about.
Sometimes there's a vague shape of a poem that's already stuck up
in my noggin. Other times there's an image and I have no idea how
the heck I'm going to make it into a poem. It's like kneading dough.
But I think a lot about the flow and the rhythm that suits the subject.
I hear it in my head."
When Coe writes about James Brown, for example, the rhythm of the
words sounds percussive. His poem about Charlie Mingus, by contrast,
has a sound that is "spooky, meditative, and moody," with
the music echoing from the subject to the words.
"The fact that poetry is in lines," Singer says, "allows
us to manipulate sound in different ways, almost as if you're composing.
Line breaks are a minor technical point to people who don't know
what poetry is, but they are a microcosm of the way we can live
"I think," Singer continues, "that there should be
no discrepancy between the sound of poetry and the sense of poetry.
Poetry should give you visceral pleasure. As William Carlos Williams
said, 'If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't poetry'."
Coe sometimes works in collaboration with a baroque cello and harpsichord
duo in which the combination of music and poetry requires the collaborates
to have a deep understanding of, and respect for, each other's art
in order to find a balance point where neither dominates. Even in
thinking about a poetry reading, Coe approaches it as if it were
"The tone and feel, the pacing in any kind of performance,
more than the actual content, is what holds it together. We're trying
to create an alternate reality for audience, and we don't want to
do anything that takes them out of their dream."
Singer concurs. "Music is a way to reach a different reality,
and poetry is a link to that other reality. Poetry is so compact.
It's an entire artistic experience on one page. It permits time
travel. When we read a poem written by someone in the past, their
mind can be connected with us in the present. When we read the poem
aloud, the connection is visceral--speaking the words gives us a
physical connection with a person from the past. I want people to
enjoy the way poetry does new things with language and makes us
think about the significance of the words we see and use."
"I cannot exist without poetry," says Coe, and Singer
would probably agree. "I could never not have music as part
of my life and my work."
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.