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 bands.

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 our lives.

"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 a concert.

"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 citytype@globe.com.

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Photo of John Coltrane, 1963
by Sean Singer

Otherworldly and outreaching,
A Parnassus of noise with a serious
Glint of inestimable
Worry on his face,

O Coltrane what will ring
From your pious
Gleaming Antillean Euphonia, so capable.
Swift, with no trace,

No trace of stillness? The blur
Of the gray-gray and gris-gris
Flows hornward to the black bell

Of the saxophone, a cylinder
Of joy, an empurpled sea
Of heaven ebbing into hell.

When Charlie Mingus Played His Bass
by Charles Coe

When Charlie Mingus played his bass
burnished wood glowed like black ice.

Eighth notes and sixteenth notes
dashed, naked,
through the smoked-filled room--
playing hide and seek--
and kissed each other
on the lips.

When Charlie Mingus played his bass
rivers danced with the moon--
left muddy footprints all along their banks.

Spirits of the trees recognized
their brother's song
and hummed along
deep in ancient forests where no light
ever shone--except at night.

you could hear
your heartbeat keeping time
and stray cats yowling at the moon
and dust motes floating in Pharaoh's tomb

when Charlie Mingus played his bass.
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