The Poet’s Favourite Instrument (That He Never Learned to Play)

Peter Porter would recognise which song the pianist plays in any poem, from the dog-dirty miner in ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, by Robert Service, to the Negro in ‘The Weary Blues’, by Langston Hughes. Maybe the songs of silent pianists would be easy for him too, such as in Roger Moulson’s ‘The Wooden Piano’, whose makers ‘wanted most to hear, and chose/to learn by building it, shaping each piece by hand’, or the prisoner in Louis Simpson’s ‘The Silent Piano’ indulging in his own personal escape. Many times, in ‘In Paradisum’, at his daughter’s place in Rome, Porter has listened to the same:

concise and consonant array of notes
from the piano in the neighbouring flat.
‘Ah, Schumann’s “Papillons”,’ I’ve said,
and next morning with authority,
‘He’s playing Schumann yet again,’

Pianos and composers are the focus, albeit often temporarily, for countless poets, from Stephen Romer (‘and I am no one, except for/the savage, dry euphoria/as the piano surges in’) to Jorie Graham (‘please music begin, the years are disappearing, no one will cough’). Poets such as Donald Justice have taken a longer look. Sometimes the piano makes an appearance without being the centre of attention. Amateur bands can pop up anywhere, from Wales (‘The Llandudno Town Band’ by David Constantine), to France (‘Le Petit Journal Jazz Club, Saint Michel, 10 June 2009’ by Paul Durcan) and America (‘On 52nd Street’ by Philip Levine). When it comes to the other instruments involved, we have Michael Longley on harmonica, Ian Duhig on fiddle, Matthew Sweeney on saxophone and Jacob Polley on accordion. Not to mention Edward Kamau Brathwaite on drums (although you have to make your own drumkit) and Adam Thorpe on harp (as long as you can lug it up two flights first). On the organ is the teenage composer of ‘Crimond’, through the voice of Robin Robertson, now the standard setting for the 23rd Psalm. As for guitar, Glyn Wright more than takes care of that, his contemplations on the instrument as lengthy, and perhaps more so, as Justice’s for the piano.

Musicians themselves pop up in many volumes of poetry. Bob Dylan, titled by many as the poet of music, is always cropping up in books of poetry. In 2011, one present for his 70th birthday came in the form of an anthology, The Captain’s Tower, to which seventy poets contribute, including Lachlan Mackinnon, Glyn Maxwell, Linda Chase, Chris McCabe, Helen Kitson, Sophie Hannah, Wendy Cope, Linda France, Mark Ford, Andrew Motion, Owen Sheers, Roddy Lumsden, Peter Finch, Paul Batchelor and Hugo Williams. Another contributor was Jeremy Reed. In the ’90s, Reed’s collection Pop Stars paid tribute to musicians and singers such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop. In 2002, Reed’s tribute was more specific, this time focusing on just one legend in his collection, Heartbreak Hotel. The legend in the latter case is the eponymous hero of this year’s A-Z tribute to the giants of Rock and Roll, among other genres, by David Castro. See the likes of John Lennon, Paul Young and Bruce Springsteen come to life in his free-verse and jazz-influenced eBook, and debut collection, E is for Elvis.  A sequel is in the offing but I don’t know if he does requests.

The Levellers made a song from a Pete Morgan poem for their eponymous album, and there are countless more connections between poets and bands.

Many musicians themselves have put pen to paper for a poem, from rappers to guitarists. While some perhaps shouldn’t have bothered, a few of these crossovers were worthwhile. It is also becoming increasingly common for artists to be accomplished in both fields. although, in some cases, whether or not an artist is deemed accomplished is determined heavily by personal taste. David Berman, former frontman of indie rock band the Silver Jews, has proved himself worthy of a poet, albeit on a small scale. In the UK, Nick Burbridge, of McDermott’s Two Hours, and Attila the Stockbroker both also mix and match.

For poetry with subtle music purely there to enhance the poem, rather than vice-versa, Convenience Stores, by Buddy Wakefield, is a stunning and hypnotic example.

More iconic on the poetry scene, at least in the UK, is Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke. McGough was first part of The Scaffold, a comedic poetry and music trio, with John Gorman and Mike McGear (brother of Paul McCartney, himself no stranger to poetry), who came together in the 1960s. Then, in the ’70s, came Grimms, a similar project made up of the trio from The Scaffold as well as members of the Bonzo Dog Band and the Liverpool Scene, from which Adrian Henri and Brian Patten later joined. These days, Roger McGough, though still presenting the BBC Radio 4 series Poetry Please, is more likely to be found performing voiceovers for TV adverts.

Which links neatly to John Cooper Clarke.

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke’s recorded output has mainly been accompanied by musical backing (much like the dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, who used to tour with Clarke) but he is mostly admired for the lively, rapid-fire renditions of his poems, usually performed a cappella. Clarke’s poetry can be found in the CD covers of songs by the Artic Monkeys, and in the 2012 film, Ill Manors, Clarke appeared as himself, performing the poem ‘Pity the Plight of Young Fellows’.

Then there’s the nearest thing to a poetry band in the last ten years, Aisle 16, featuring the awesome Luke Wright.

Then there’s the extremely talented poets Don Paterson and (the late) Michael Donaghy, also musicians.

The sheer number of poets acknowledged here is testament to the influence which music has had, and continues to have, on poetry. Some poets, such as American Paul Zimmer, even believe in ‘dog music’:

My big dog sang with me so purely,
puckering her ruffled lips into an O,
beginning with small, swallowing sounds
like Coltrane musing, then rising to power
and resonance, gulping air to continue—
her passion and sense of flawless form—
singing not with me, but for the art of dogs.

If I have missed any poems heavily influenced by music, feel free to tweet me (unless you wrote them yourself) so I don’t miss out.