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CAMPUS Debate: Poetry and Music in Performance

Poetry and music: a natural pairing? On instinct, yes! of course! why who hasn’t extolled a thumping good poem for its ‘musicality’, or raved about the ‘pure poetry’ of a great song? If you go back far enough to when nearly all verse was accompanied by flute and lyre, it’s hard to say whether poetry and music were originally regarded as seperate entities.

Yet on the other hand, haven’t we all sat through more than one dodgy poetry reading that ill-advisedly invited along a free improv jazz quartet to comp about aimlessly in the background, sounding like a sack of sick cats thrown into a lido? Does live music always add to the poem, or can a soundtrack needlessly enchance or reinforce particular emotional readings, or encourage the idea of audience as passive listener rather than active participant? Or just be plain damn annoying? Are there types of music that work better with poetry than others? When is it tasteful to use classical music, hip-hop or ambient laptop crackle?

In a new little occasional series of excursuses we’re calling ‘CAMPUS Debates’, we’re going to hone in on a topical issue in the poetry world and ask members of the CAMPUS community to answer back and relate from their own experiences, good or bad, pro or against. And, we’ll try from time to time to call in particular poets and expert witnesses to make their own cases.

So this month – live music and poetry: when can it work? To start off things, we spoke to two poets in favour of the combination, Kate Potts and Jacqueline Saphra, who together make up Somewhere In Particular.


Kate Potts

“Over the past year or so Jacqueline Saphra and I (as site specific poetry company Somewhere in Particular) have been working with composer Benjamin Tassie to explore new ways of combining poetry and music in performance. In the future, we want to set up collaborative partnerships in which poets and composers combine poetry and music in innovative ways (avoiding the more obvious choice of the poem as song lyric). To get things started, we’ve put together an evening of poetry and music performances at Wilton’s Music Hall around the common theme of the body. The performances range from seventeenth century Viola da Gamba music to electronic new-music; from comic and erotic poetry to lyric, multi-voice narratives. The pieces are designed to function as separate but interrelated voices, a conversation in sound.

From lyric poetry to folk ballads – from rap and dub poetry to avant-garde sound poetry – the common roots of poetry and music are very clear to see. But what happens when we combine spoken ‘page’ poetry with music to create a performance? If such poetry contains, in its syntax, rhythms and sound patterning, its own carefully crafted music, how does more abstract, wordless music avoid distracting from or over-interpreting the text? Like a heavy-handed film soundtrack, the wrong music might seem jarring or manipulative. The right music, though, might work with rather than against the text, each art form supporting and shedding new light on the other.

According to recent research by scientists at Exeter University published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, when favourite passages of poetry are read aloud the same parts of the brain – linked to memory and emotion – are stimulated as when we listen to music. Poetry and music, when put together with care, can emphasise and utilise each other’s more physical, vocal qualities, creating an experience far beyond textual semantics.”


Jacqueline Saphra

“My background is in the theatre, and my first career was as a playwright, so collaboration comes naturally to me. I hadn’t realised how much I was missing it until I was gently accosted by the composer Benjamin Tassie a couple of years ago outside The Poetry Café in Covent Garden after The Shuffle, a monthly poetry event I helped to organise. Little did I know what thrilling projects that encounter would lead to!

Benjamin explained to me that he was interested in ways that live poetry and music could work together and would like to explore this further. As it happened, I had already organised readings that included some live music, and observed that the musical element gave the brain a chance to re-focus and re-set between different poets whilst still keeping an audience’s attention, so that when the poetry came back again, listeners seemed even more attentive than they’d been before. It seemed to me that the combination of music and poetry created a listening experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Emma Wright, my editor at The Emma Press, suggested that music might add another dimension to readings of my illustrated book of prose poems If I Lay on My Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women. I asked Benjamin whether he would be interested in creating some music for the cellist, Alice Hyland, but he had other, even more exciting ideas and suggested adding a piano as well. A few months later we had a score made up of what Benjamin described as ‘miniatures’ to weave in and out of the poems as a kind of musical soundscape during a live performance.

This was all happening alongside the work of Somewhere in Particular towards an event at Wilton’s Music Hall that we agreed should include poets, musicians and the dancer Luke Ahmet from Ballet Rambert.

I’ve always felt that poetry and music complement each other very well, each encouraging the listener to respond in ways that are often visceral, even physical, rather than intellectual. But each makes its own particular demands on the listener. Music, because there are no words, does not rely on poetry’s specificity of image or situation, and demands of an audience a particular type of – I would call it emotional – attention because of its wordlessness. Part of this response is formed by the listeners’ own imagination, as music allows the listener to privately and internally create their own pictures and stories, prompted, perhaps, by the language provided by the poetry.

Working with Benjamin, both in his capacity as composer and curator, has been a joy for me, taking me back to my roots in performance and expanding my perception of what is possible in live events combining different art forms. We hope to continue our collaborations, and to use what we learn from the process in future projects. I like to think our work is part of a wider movement towards exciting live literature performance which can exist alongside more conventional poetry events, developing new poetry audiences – as well as encouraging new ways of listening.”


Now it’s your turn CAMPUS. What have been some of your most memorable poetry/live music crossover experiences? Are they a match made in heaven or a problem couple? Post your comments below…





  • ChristineBousfield

    I have performed with a group called Nightdiver (I write and sing/speak besides writing the poetry and making suggestions about melody, harmony, allusions, interpretation) The poem/songs are improvised but rehearsed by professional musicians on woodwind, keyboard and guitar (though some improvisations happen on the night). This irons out the chaotic effect Will mentioned.
    Check out the poetry/music section of my See what you think.

  • Clifford Hughes

    Well, I’ve just arrived on Campus like an explorer on a new and strange planet (The digital social networking world, rather than poetry, is what makes me feel like a ballet dancer in wellingtons). Anyway, I’ll plunge right in – if a poem requires music, it must be as carefully considered as the words themselves. They can, of course, exist independently of each other and just come together when the occasion seems right. I’m thinking of the brilliant collaborations between Jim Parker and John Betjeman in the 1970s. But there are many other successful pairings where the whole can prove greater than the sum of its parts.

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