5: RT List Q & A - July
7/6/2007 (updated 7/6/2007)
I have a clutch of questions about poetry and songwriting, which I
understand to be separate although related disciplines.
20. Have you written, or do you write, poetry? If so, have you published any
of it, or would you consider doing so?
RT: My intention is usually lyrics, but sometimes I write things that are
too dense or too formal to be songworthy - sort of becalmed lyrics. I don't
think of this as poetry. I don't publish this stuff.
21. Who are your favorite poets? What are your favorite poems?
RT: Well, this seems to change. Currently, Homer is my hero, and the Iliad
my Fave. Shakespeare's not too shabby, Milton....Wilfred Owen, Graves,
Lawrence, Eliot, Larkin...and a whole bunch in Arabic/Persian/Turkish.
22. As a songwriter, do you find it more useful to start with a specific
idea (e.g., "I want to write a song about an MGB-GT") or to just let your
imagination wander until something starts forming? (I am studying with a
poetry teacher who espouses a method by Thomas Lux that emphasizes the
free-associating, subconscious-related approach-- which sometimes seems too
"fuzzy" to me).
RT: I find it useful to start any old how! Starting, for me, is the biggest
hurdle, continuing and finishing less so. You can start by free-associating,
and clean it up later. It all depends on what kind of thing you want to
write...I'd say there's less room in lyric-writing for the ranges of
possibilities that you find in poetry - it's a narrower lyrical discipline,
that gains its width from the musical setting. In poetry, you can
free-associate totally, with care for neither rhyme nor sense, and produce
something pretty interesting - you could recite that over some cool beatnik
jazz, of course, and then it's a mixed media experience, but not really a
song, still a poem with music. Or in poetry, you can write something as
dense and footnote-heavy as Milton or Pound, that only a fool would set to
music (and They are out there). With a song, you have to grab the audience
(audience may be a new concept for poets becoming songwriters - no longer
are you just read by the editor and his 5 readers in some worthy quarterly,
or reciting to two librarians and a hamster in a coffee shop). The poetry
audience, or audient, will happily grant you time to get to stanza 13, where
the delightful intellectual conceit of the metaphor becomes apparent, and
the ends are tied. The song audience wants blood in verse 1, and emotional
involvement thereafter. This is more immediately a realm of entertainment.
23. Do you notate your melodies or record them? Compose on guitar or some
other instrument? Does the melody generally come before the lyrics, or vice
RT: I use notation - I tend to lose things on cassettes or CDs, or else I'm
just bad at filing that stuff. In the back of my notebook I have music
manuscript, and I attempt to sketch out as much as I can by way of reminder.
I use the guitar or any other instrument, if I can play it or not. I do a
lot of writing in my head - I find this realm less nailed down into patterns
than my fingers. As Mark Twain said, What's the good of relying on your eyes
only, when your imagination is out of focus? The melody, or the lyrics, or
both at once, comes first.
24. Finally: I'm a poet who's about to take a songwriting workshop--for
pleasure, not to join your vocation. I have not had any success with
songwriting in the past, though I admit I haven't tried very hard.
What advice would you offer me?
RT: You have to aim at simplicity. The greatest pitfall for the poet would
be in thinking that it's easy, and writing something way too complex. Hank
Williams should be the role model - 150 word vocabulary, heart on sleeve,
real, direct emotions, straight from heart of performer to heart of
Leonard Cohen would be a great role model also, as someone who does both
exremely well. Look at which poems he sets to music, and how simple the
melodies are if the lyric is complex, Suzanne, for example; and the
simplicity of words, if not ideas, on the songs that start out as songs.
And, of course, how not to do it. Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth, whom I
otherwise have the greatest admiration for, doing a bop version of 'Shall I
compare thee to a summer's day?' In the world of High Art, which Cleo and
Johnny rub shoulders with, this sort of thing may be acceptable, but it
ain't Jazz, and it ain't Puccini, and it sure ain't Hank Williams.