Since I spent the early part of the year writing poems from songs (and really enjoying it) I was interested in what other poets had done with their inspirations and found a few anthologies with music poems in them.
Unlike poems about movies (a relatively new technology), poems about music go way back into the centuries all the way to Homer. Like they did for movies, Everyman’s Library has published Music’s Spell, poems about music and musicians. If you’re looking for more contemporary poems, this might not be the book because it's heavily weighted toward historical poems mixed with some contemporary ones.
Some other highlights:
- "Juke Box Love Song" by Langston Hughes
- "First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels" by Allen Ginsberg
- "Painkillers" by Thom Gunn
- "Waiting on Elvis, 1956" by Joyce Carol Oates (a poem found in multiple anthologies)
- "The Composer" by W.H. Auden
- "For Poulenc" by Frank O’Hara
- "Lines: To a Movement in Mozart’s E-Flat Symphony" by Thomas Hardy
- "When the Violin" by Hafiz
- "The Guitar" by Federico Garcia Lorca
- From "Jubilate Agno" by Christopher Smart
- "Piano Lessons" by Billy Collins
- "In a Museum" by Thomas Hardy
"Music" by Anna Akhmatova whose Lyn Coffin translation ends with:
“And she sang like the first storm heaven gave,
Or as if flowers were having their say.”
"The Flute" by Andre Chenier about a music teacher and the Lloyd Alexander translation ends with:
“With my young fingers in his knowing hands, again
And yet again he guided them until they could,
Of their own will, draw music from a tube of wood.”
"From Fruit-Gathering" by Rabindranath Tagore which ends:
“The flute steals his smile from my friend’s lips
and spreads it over my life.”
"The Tongues of Violins" by Walt Whitman:
The tongues of violins!
(I think O tongues, ye tell this heart, that cannot tell itself;
This brooding, yearning heart, that cannot tell itself.)
From "Gerog Trakl’s Trumpets:"
“Dancers rise from a black wall--
Scarlet flags, laughter, madness, trumpets.”
From Hamlet by William Shakespeare which ends:
“Call me what instrument you will,
though you can fret me,
yet you cannot play upon me.”
From Walt Whitman's "Proud Music of the Storm" which ends:
Give me to hold all sounds, (I, madly struggling, cry,)
Fill me with all the voices of the universe,
Endow me with their throbbings—Nature's also,
The tempests, waters, winds—operas and chants—marches and dances,
Utter—pour in—for I would take them all.
"The Solitary Reaper" by William Wordsworth that ends:
“The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.”
From "Don Juan" by Lord Byron:
“The devil hath not, in all his quiver’s choice,
An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice.”
And “The Singing Lesson” by David Wagoner which ends:
“If you have learned, with labor and luck, the measures
You were meant to complete,
You may find yourself before an audience
Singing into the light,
Transforming the air you breathe—that malleable wreckage,
That graveyard of shouts,
That inexhaustible pool of chatter and whimpers—
Into deathless music.”
I actually got the idea to look for music poems from another anthology, Seriously Funny, Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby, which Billy Collins recommended in his Masterclass. There was a definite style of poem in this anthology, long-lined narratives at the expense of short, funny pieces. And I'm sure reading a book full of long-lined poems crammed with odd details influenced a recent Rockford Files poem I finished last week. But strangely there were more unfunny poems in the anthology than funny ones, although there were some interesting music poems sprinkled in:
- "Country-Western Singer" by Alan Shapiro
- "I’d Rather Look for My Keys" Freeman Rogers
- "Understanding Al Green" by Adrian Matejka
- "Vince Neil Meets Josh in a Chinese Restaurant in Malibu (after Ezra Pound)" by Josh Bell
- “Don’t Know What Love Is” by Honoree Jeffrey (a great poem about sneaking out to a Dinah Washington show)
- and “Elvis, Be My Psychopomp” by David Kirby
Then there's Mystery Train by David Wojahn with its famous sequence of rock poems. My well-read friend Sherry, seeing I was writing pop-culture poems in graduate school, recommended the book to me when we were both at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-1990s.
The middle sequence contains 35 poems on various rock history milestones: James Brown at the Apollo and on tour, a poem about the car Hank Williams died in, Jerry Lee Lewis’ scandalous marriage to Myra Gale Brown ( I was surprised to relearn her name today since she’s always credited as “underage cousin” even on Jerry Lee Lewis' Wikipedia page and even in this poem she gets no name), Ritchie Valens before his plane crash, the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961, a poem about the song “Surfin’ Bird,” Janis Joplin leaving Port Arthur in 1964, Dick Clark hiding his real age, Elvis shooting the TV while watching Robert Goulet, the last days of Brian Jones by his swimming pool, Altamont, listening to The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival in Vietnam (and The Doors during the making of Apocalypse Now), John Berryman listening to Robert Johnson, the “Exile on Main Street” Rolling Stones tour, Nixon naming Elvis an Honorary Federal Narcotics Agent, Malcolm McLaren signing the Sex Pistols, Elvis in Las Vegas, drunken bar parodies of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley's tour, Brian Wilson’s sandbox, Lisa Marie Presley, Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison’s comeback tour, and TNT Colorizing the movie A Hard Day’s Night.
The problem with re-reading all these poems these days is that the subjects seem too obvious now and over-visited. And the poems all sound the same for the most part. There's not much variation in the form, tone or point-of-view. Some exceptions are:
- "Buddy Holly Watching Rebel Without a Cause, Lubbock, Texas, 1956" (a poem which was also in our movie anthology)
- "W.C.W. Watching Presley’s Second Appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”: Mercy Hospital, Newark, 1956"
- "Woody Guthrie Visited by Bob Dylan: Brooklyn State Hospital, New York, 1961"
- "Delmore Schwartz at the First Performance of the Velvet Underground, New York, 1966" and another poem directly following about Lou Reed at Delmore Schwartz’s wake.
- "History Being Made: Melcher Production Studios, Los Angeles, 1968" about Charles Manson
- The Assassination of John Lennon As Depicted by the Madame Tussaud Was Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario, 1987"
And then lastly, the anthology Sweet Nothings, An Anthology of Rock and Roll in American Poetry edited by Jim Elledge which like the unfunny-funny poetry anthology above it has a lot of poems only tangentially referencing rock songs (and some not even). But there were still some good exceptions:
- David Trinidad's "Meet the Supremes" (a list of an ode to all girl groups)
- Kay Murphy's "Eighties Meditation"
- Jim Elledge's "Strangers: An Essay" (about Jim Morrison's grave at Père Lachaise)
- Dorothy Barresi's "The Back-Up Singer" and "Nine of Clubs, Cleveland, Ohio"
- Christopher Gilbert's "Time with Stevie Wonder in It"
- Sydney Lea's "The One White Face in the Place"
- Michael Waters' "Christ at the Apollo, 1962"
- Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" (probably the most famous poem about popular music)
- Mark Defoe's "Dream Lover"
- William Matthew's prose poem "The Penalty for Bigamy Is Two Wives"
- Ronald Wallace's "Sound Systems"
- Lisel Mueller's "The Deaf Dancing to Rock"
- Thom Gunn's "The Victim" (about the death of Nancy Spungen)
- Joseph Hutchinson's "Joni Mitchell"
- Katharyn Howd Machan's "In 1969"
- Robert Long's "What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding"
- Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys"
- Gary Soto's "Heaven"
- Albert Goldbarth's "People Are Dropping Out of Our Lives"
- David Bottoms' "Homage to Lester Flatt"
- David Wojahn's "Buddy Holly" (much better than the Mystery Train poems, IMHO)
- Van K. Brock's "Sphynx"
- Richard Speakes' "Patsy Cline"
- Richard Blessing's "Elegy for Elvis"
Larry Levis' "Decrescendo" with the line:
"The man on sax & the other on piano never had to argue
Their point, for their point was time itself"
James Seay's "Johnny B. Goode" with the lines:
"though I could probably write one of those pop-culture essays
on its All-American iconography,
the railroad running through the promise-land"
Michael Loden's "Tumbling Dice" with the line:
"is 'Ooo Baby Baby'
still the melting point of ice?"
And I must mention to end, surprisingly none of these anthologies included my favorite music poem, "Serenade" by Billy Collins.