Saturday, February 19, 2011

Songs from Poems: Sonnet 129

John William Davis: Sonnet 129

[purchase] John's website is down and further research shows no CDs are available on CDBaby or - if you want more information, drop me an e-mail at and I can put you directly in touch with him!

I posted one of John William Davis' songs in my first few weeks as a Star Maker Machine contributor, waaaaay back in October 2008... and haven't shared anything of his since - shame on me!

Sonnet 129 is a musical rewrite of a Shakespeare sonnet, which actually should be Sonnet 130, to John's chagrin - regardless, it is a lovely interpretation of Willy the Shake's tongue-in-cheek ode to his lady, not waxing poetic like his literary contemporaries but honestly addressing her flaws while still professing his love...


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Songs From Poems: Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Iron Maiden: Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Enough with these namby-pamby singer-songwriters, Star Makers. Let's rock!

Back when we did Discoveries week, I shared a photo of my mid-'80s college dorm room. Featured prominently on the wall was a poster for Iron Maiden's Powerslave album. I was quite the metalhead at the time, and Iron Maiden were in the upper echelons of my personal metal pantheon.

Iron Maiden's musical interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic was originally released on Powerslave in 1984, but I prefer this live version from the following year's Live After Death, one of the best live albums in the history of heavy metal.

More than twenty-five years later, I don't find myself listening to most of the metal I grew up on. But Iron Maiden, I can still listen to without--pardon the pun--irony. Their prog-rock arrangements always set them apart from their 80's hair-metal contemporaries, and for some reason Steve Harris' galloping bass lines never fail to get my blood pumping.

So carve out thirteen minutes of your life, put on your headband and tight trousers, and rock out! But remember my dear Star Makers, we're not as young as we used to be. Please practice safe headbanging.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Songs From Poems: No Storms Come

The Innocence Mission: No Storms Come


When I was reading up on Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to prepare to write this post, I came across this line:

He is regarded by different readers as the greatest Victorian poet of religion, of nature, or of melancholy. [source]

This line struck me because the song I post is by The Innocence Mission, a band I could describe the same way. Both the band and the poet are devout Catholics, and they write often about the beauty and strength of the natural world, and do so in the most hauntingly beautiful and melancholic way.

The poem the song was taken from is called "Heaven-Haven: A Nun Takes the Veil". The poem (and song) itself says nothing religious, but talks about a longing for a place where things are always beautiful and never hard, and in that regard it is like Heaven. In Hopkins life, he seemed to struggle with his conflicting views between whether he could be a good Jesuit priest as well as a poet, and also was battling the conflict between his religious beliefs and (according to a number of sources) his sexuality. He died at a fairly young age of typhoid fever, only to have his poetry that was largely unpublished before his death, later praised as being ahead of its time.

Songs From Poems: Wild Nights

Brady Earnhart: Wild Nights


Wild Nights is a short poem by Emily Dickinson. There are three stanzas of four lines each, and no line has more than five syllables. But the poem has produced a great deal of spilled ink by those who have tried to interpret it. On the face of it, Wild Nights seems to be a burst of passion, but this does not jibe with Dickinson’s biography. So some critics attempt to explain that the poem is actually an expression of religious passion, while others theorize that Dickinson had a secret lover and debate his possible identity. I think it’s much simpler than that. Let me explain.

Emily Dickinson was not a very social person, and she became a recluse in later life. Far from having a lover, she did not even form close friendships. She grew up in the years before the Civil War, when various illnesses could claim a person’s life with startling suddenness. Dickinson lost an instructor at the academy she was attending as a teenager, and this seems to have affected her deeply. Dickinson seems to have resolved at that time, consciously or not, that she would not risk becoming to close to anyone, lest Death come for them. Some of the quotes I saw in researching this post suggest that Dickinson all but kept a tally of those she cared about who died as she grew older. Each death seemed to confirm for her the wisdom of not forming close bonds. So Dickinson’s relationships were mostly in the form of correspondence, and she was a prolific letter writer. What she knew of physical passion she read about in the works of Shakespeare and other authors. So, it seems to me that the poem Wild Nights is about the yearning for companionship. She mentions “wild nights”, but it’s not at all clear that she can imagine what they would be like. If anything, the wildness seems to be an external force, and the yearned-for companionship provides a haven from it.

I mentioned that the poem is a series of short bursts of words. One might expect a song made from Wild Nights to be loud and fast. But Brady Earnhart takes it slow, and his arrangement creates a cushion of sound. What comes through beautifully is that yearning emotion I spoke of above. You can hear another song from Earnhart’s latest album So Few Things here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Songs From Poems: love is more thicker than forget

The Story: love is more thicker than forget

[purchase] / [read the poem]

The ever-lowercase e.e. cummings isn't the obvious choice for lyrical source material, even when his poems scan, as in the 4x4 series from whence this transformed verse comes. The language borders on cryptic abstraction, with voiced emotion and fragmented narrative taking the place of the more traditional verse structure which he learned from, and it tends to break funny between lines.

But Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball, in a coda from their debut duo pairing The Story, found their tendency towards playfully beautiful soaring and dischordant harmonies perfect for the piece, and for e.e. cummings' style overall, managing with just piano and two voices to create an incredibly successful environment for what is often a gorgeous yet difficult-to-fully-access poetic method. They do it so well, in fact, that as in the original poem, the pauses between lines speak as loud as the words themselves: the sparseness sings, and the self-referential imagery of love's extremity rises and fades with the cross and flow of these two voices into sky and sea and everything between.

Songs from Poems: Jerusalem

Geoviki´s post on Jerusalem as interpreted by Billy Bragg made me remember another fine take on Blake: a dubby postpunk gem by former Pop Group singer Mark Stewart. Anthemic indeed.

Songs From Poems: Blake's Jerusalem

Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Tor

Billy Bragg: Blake's Jerusalem


The poem we know as Jerusalem is William Blake's 1808 preface to his longer epic, Milton: A Poem, and is based on a legend that Jesus Christ visited Glastonbury, England, during his lifetime. This visit is reflected in the four questions that begin the poem, and Blake's conclusion is that if true, it would have resulted in a temporary heaven on earth. It concludes with the exhortation to recreate this state once more in England. In other words, it's a poetic alternate-universe fanfic of the Bible.

The poem languished until 1916, when it was set to music, a move meant to encourage the British fighting spirit at a time when World War 1 wasn't going well (see also Darius' description this week of Yeats' Slouching Towards Bethlehem from the same time and place). Since then it has become enormously popular song in England, often used publicly as one of several unofficial national anthems. I have to say, it's turned into an enormous earworm for me ever since I decided to post it.

Billy Bragg includes this version on his overtly political 1990 CD, The Internationale. Bragg is an English socialist punk-folkie. As was Blake, by all accounts. Hearing this song in Bragg's pronounced East London accent is quite fitting, I think, especially the line about the "dark Satanic mills." Clearly, Blake wasn't much of a supporter of the Industrial Revolution.

Jerusalem by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire;
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.

Songs From Poems: The Lady of Shalott

Loreena McKennitt: The Lady of Shalott


Alfred Lord Tennyson published his original version of The Lady of Shalott in 1832, but Loreena McKennitt takes her lyrics from Tennyson’s revised version from 1843. Tennyson is famous for his Idylls of the King, which was a series of poems inspired by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Although The Lady of Shalott is a tale with Arthurian elements, it is not part of The Idylls of the King. In fact, the poem was inspired by an Italian telling of the story of Elaine of Astolat, and this version has several differences from Malory’s telling. Note too that, although T H White would later combine the characters, this is not the Elaine who was the mother of Galahad.

Tennyson presents a lady who is under a curse: she must view the world only through a mirror, and then weave images of what she sees. This curse was apparently Tennyson’s invention; it can be found neither in the Italian version nor in Malory. It is the element that makes the poem so fascinating. There have been many scholarly discussions over the years about what this signifies. For me, and I think for Loreena McKennitt as well, it is best left a mystery. I do enjoy the irony of one notion though. The lady in her weaving reminds me of the Fates in Greek myth. That would mean that the Lady of Shalott can control every destiny except her own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Songs from poems: But for you who fear my name

The Welcome Wagon: But For You Who Fear My Name


I didn't think I would be able to post anything this week, but when our just and true leaders lifted the restriction on songs from this century and said that Bible verses could be considered poems I found myself back in the game.

I bought Welcome Wagon's album because it was produced by Sufjan Stevens. His influence is obvious in every note of every song. (In fact no more than five minutes ago as I played this song before uploading it, my son said, "Is this Sufjan?").

All of the lyrics to this song are from two sections of the book of Malachi in the Old Testament (Chapter 4:2 and Chapter 3:17).

Songs From Poems: Mad Girls Love Song

Fisher: Mad Girls Love Song


It's difficult to look at a picture, like the one above, of Sylvia Plath and imagine the darkness that must have been haunting her. Plath has become almost synonymous with her suicide by gas oven than by her impressive poetry and her semi-autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar". Most of her work seems to have those shadows lurking though, the ones saying she was worried about her own mental health and that perhaps things weren't what they seemed in the pretty, intelligent co-ed and mother of two.

The poem "Mad Girls Love Song" was first published in the women's fashion magazine Mademoiselle back in 1953, having been written by Plath in college a few years previous. Considering its title, it was begging to be made into an actual song, and a number of versions have been made by different artists over the years. This version of the song, as recorded by the singer Fisher, was never released because they were unable to reach her estate for authorization. Instead, they changed a number of the lyrics (they're already slightly off in this version) and released it under the title "Sleepy Head" on the album linked for purchase above.

You can read the original poem text here.

Songs From Poems: Take This Waltz

¡Ay, ay, ay, ay! Leonard Cohen´s admiration for Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca must have been huge, as he named his daughter Lorca Cohen in honour of the legendary Spanish poet. And later, Montreal's finest personally and expertly translated Lorca's poem Pequeño Vals Vienés as Take This Waltz, to be included on his surprisingly poppy '88 album I'm Your Man. I'm pretty sure that Lorca, whose death at the hands of nationalist militia in the Spanish Civil War is still shrouded in mystery, would have been proud.

"This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz,
With its very own breath of brandy and death,
Dragging its tail in the sea..."

As a bonus, here´s Cohen´s fine interpretation from Live In London (2008), complete with band introductions.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Songs From Poems: Now Touch The Air Softly

Peter Mayer: Now Touch The Air Softly

[purchase album]
[purchase poem]

Even to a cynical heart like mine, it seems appropriate to post this on Valentine’s Day.

Now touch the air softly, step gently, one, two ...
I'll love you 'til roses are robin's egg blue;
I'll love you 'til gravel is eaten for bread,
And lemons are orange, and lavender's red.

“Now Touch The Air Softly” (more formally known as “A Pavane for the Nursery”) is a popular wedding poem by William Jay Smith, the USA’ 19th Poet Laureate. He was born in 1918 in Winnfield, Louisiana, and in his very long career has written for adults and children. I do not lay claim to great affection for poetry, but Smith’s style appeals to me, especially for its clarity.

Now touch the air softly, swing gently the broom.
I'll love you 'til windows are all of a room;
And the table is laid, And the table is bare,
And the ceiling reposes on bottomless air.

Smith has explained his style: “I believe that poetry should communicate: it is, by its very nature, complex, but its complexity should not prevent its making an immediate impact on the reader.” So when his poems dish out alliterations, I find that greatly preferable to impenetrable metaphor.

“Now Touch The Air Softly” has its fair share of metaphor, but its lucidity surely has helped its elevation to the canon of wedding poetry. Who’d preserve a dry eye as they survey the happy couple eagerly setting out on their mutual commitment with these words providing the dramatic, impassioned soundtrack:

I'll love you 'til heaven rips the stars from his coat,
And the moon rows away in a glass-bottomed boat;
And Orion steps down like a river below,
And earth is ablaze, and oceans aglow.

So it’s all the more unromantic to learn that Smith, who at almost 93 is still alive, ended his marital career with fellow poet Barbara Howe not in death doing them part, but in the legal construct of divorce.

“Great poetry,” according to Smith, “must have its own distinctive music; it must resound with the music of the human psyche.” And if the human psyche requires aid in that, folk singer Peter Mayer in 1999 put Smith’s poem to music – and most enchantingly so. Mayer, from Minnesota, has released nine albums independently and built up a fair following, but has yet to achieve a breakthrough. Read his brief bio and reviews of his work at

So touch the air softly, and swing the broom high.
We will dust the grey mountains, and sweep the blue sky:
And I'll love you as long as the furrow the plough,
As however is ever, and ever is now.

(Photo from

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Songs From Poems: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joni Mitchell: Slouching Towards Bethlehem


“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It’s a very familiar quote. The original source is the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. The Second Coming was Yeats’ response to the trauma of World War I. In the United Kingdom, the so-called “great war” cast a long shadow. Well into the 1920s and beyond, there are cultural references to the war, and to the generation of young men who were lost in it or permanently emotionally scarred by it. As late as the 1980s, when Joni Mitchell adapted The Second Coming into her song Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Sting wrote about this lost generation in his song The Children’s Crusade. Yeats, in his first reaction to the war, equated the dark times to the precursor of the second coming as foretold in the New Testament.

In the 1980s, there were small wars, famines, and other troubles in the world. Joni Mitchell was becoming more aware of, and concerned about, these troubles than she had been in her youth. Her song Ethiopia is one sign of this. So that may be why Yeats’ dark vision resonated with her. Mitchell needed to modify the poem to make it work musically for her. She elongates some passages, and compresses others, and also changes some of the wording to fit her musical idea of how the poem should sound. For comparison, I have included the original poem below.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?