“Elected silence, sing to me / And beat upon my whorlèd ear, / Pipe me to pastures still and be / The music that I care to hear.”
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Habit of Perfection,” that “elected silence” becomes spiritual song. A Jesuit whose entire canon reveals the tension between artist and priest, between temptation and temperance, Hopkins found that silence could sing. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka considers the ubiquity of sounds, how “we’ve grown adept…at blocking them out with sounds of our own, at forcing a privacy where none exists.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau’s soft words of contemplation — “I love a wide margin to my life” — before admitting his own fear of a perfect silence. And yet “if silence is the enemy of art, it is also its motivation and medium: the greatest works not only draw on silence for inspiration but use it, flirt with it, turn it, for a time, against itself.”
Tucked away in a quiet room or hunched in a hushed library, writers crave silence. Silence is an escape from daily noise, from frustrations and obligations and distractions. Silence might equal solitude, a residency of the mind, but often silence is analogous to the sense of control needed for writers to create and craft. These are romantic conceptions of art, but in both practical and creative senses, writers must discover conditions that support focus and production. For poet Catherine Pierce, silence reigns: “I don’t — can’t — listen to any kind of music while writing. I learned long ago that when I listen to music, not only am I unable to focus on language in the way I need to, but — even worse! — I also tend to get a false sense of the work’s quality. If I’m listening to Tom Waits, I think I’m writing a tough, gutted, whiskey-soaked poem; if I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, I think I’m doing something elegant, sad, and strange. Then I read the poems sans soundtrack and am sorely disappointed. I first learned this lesson in high school, when, in full-on angst mode, I churned out what I was pretty sure was a genius short story while listening to the Violent Femmes. When I read the story the next day in the quiet of my bedroom, I recognized that the story was plotless and, worse, toothless — only the songs had any bite. These days I strive for total aural deprivation — silence in my home if at all possible, white noise on headphones in the coffee shop if not. After years of trying to trick myself into believing I could have music while writing, I’ve finally learned my limitations.”
Yet from the days of poems accompanied by lyre, verse has always been wedded to music. Poets have written about music, and they have considered songs that can compliment their art. Some, like Terrance Hayes in “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist,” see songs as locations for the insights of poetic narrative. But I am most interested in how poetry relates to composition; how some poets, like Pierce, require silence, while others are fulfilled by sound. In my own experience, sound complements prose well; in fact, while writing and revising my novella, “Ember Days,” I listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” on repeat. I wrote after midnight, and that looping contributed to a somber atmosphere; the story is about atomic bomb testing and opium trafficking, but it also follows how one man’s lust for a woman leads to betrayal. Lightfoot’s guitar opening sets a folk-ominous mood, and the lyrics follow suit. After a few times at the desk, I needed Lightfoot’s music to sustain the story. It was a way to return to the words I’d left during the previous darkness.
Poet Michael Earl Craig has explained to Zachary Schomburg that he is “too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem.” Once he gets a “handle” on the work, when he can see a sense of “direction emerging,” he can later return to the poem with music “not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.” He has written with the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me playing, and doesn’t listen to it in “any other context. I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley. The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.” I have never written a poem while listening to music, but am curious about the intersection of those artistic worlds. Poetry and music share a word of process — composition — and are linked by negotiations of melody, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and discord. I contacted some of my favorite poets and asked if they listen to music while planning, drafting, revising, or finishing poems.
Here is a poetry playlist: 10 poets offer their composition soundtracks. Enjoy their reflections on craft, and links to the poems and tunes that formed beautiful marriages of word and sound.
Rebecca Gayle Howell
“I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder
While I was writing Render /An Apocalypse, I listened to a lot of old Motown — The Supremes, The Jackson 5 — it’s that beat, that drive, that hammer. It doesn’t quit. Doesn’t let you quit. But this Stevie Wonder song is the one. The man rides the climax until he falls off. He’ll scream before he’ll pretend something’s over when it’s not.
Render is a Southern agrarian myth. The protagonist wakes up in a landscape he’s forgotten how to survive, and the poems act as his instruction manual. “How to Kill a Rooster.” “How to Kill a Hog.” “How to Be a Man.” Mostly what the protagonist has forgotten is tenderness, but the animals try to remind him of it, even as he slits their throats. Reviewers have called the poems “brutal,” “gruesome,” “religious.” Maybe so. Unrequited love often is.
“How to Cure,” from Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University)
“The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon
This song contains the epigraph to my collection of poems, New River Breakdown, and I listened to it a lot while composing the book, a collection of poems dealing with a couple who are, at times, separated by both physical and/or emotional distances during the narrative. We often hear about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, but what really resonates with me in “The Only Living Boy in New York” is the line “half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where” because it also speaks to how we, as people, can be “with” each other but really apart, and not even realize it — like when you come home from work, but you’re really still at the office in your head — making lists, reliving arguments, remembering paperwork you didn’t turn in, etc.
“The Surrendered” from New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press)
“One More Time with Feeling” by Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor was ambient in my new house just after my divorce. My daughter decreed her music the soundtrack of our new life. Spektor’s music was jarring and beautiful at the same time — which was sort of like our lives. I’m serious — whenever music was on, it was Regina Spektor, or the Regina Spektor Pandora station. The tone of her song “One More Time with Feeling” resonated with me, so I stole a line to use as an engine for a new poem, thinking I would later cut the line. “Breathing’s just a rhythm” stuck, however, and appears, slightly altered, in my poem “How to Miss a Man.” Both deal with the loneliness of the other side of something — the slogging. My poem appears in PANK, and in my collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, with permission of this great artist, who arguably helped my daughter, and me, gain footing.
“How to Miss a Man,” from Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
Tomás Q. Morin
“Christo Redemptor” by Charlie Musselwhite
I usually don’t listen to music when I’m writing or revising. I’m very easily distracted so I prefer silence. However, once I think a piece is done or I’m going over a book manuscript for what feels like it should be the last time, I will listen to Charlie Musselwhite’s “Christo Redemptor.”
I’ve listened to this song so many times that I can enjoy it and yet it can still be the equivalent of background noise that won’t distract me. The interplay between harmonica and piano is fantastic and it feels like the song could go on forever without ever losing any of its potency. One way in which the song helps me during this final, final stage of editing is that if anything seems off in the poem/book then it’ll immediately interrupt the spell of the song and I’ll have to stop the song and examine what’s going on. If I can play the song uninterrupted throughout the whole editing process then I know the piece is done.
“Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin
I listened to Patty Griffin’s album Children Running Through — specifically her tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Up to the Mountain” — on repeat while writing “Greece Is This Run-Down.” Something about Griffin’s understated lyrics and soaring voice made it possible to confront my own fears at the time, specifically the escalation of the Iraq War and whispers of reinstating the draft. Listening to the same music helped me get back to the same mood each time I worked on the poem, my longest to date.
“Gymnopédies No. 1” by Erik Satie
For me, poems begin as combinations of sounds — words or phrases that are sonically magnetic and eventually attach themselves to some kind of meaning. Erik Satie’s elegant Gymnopédies work the same way. The pieces subvert traditional piano composition by giving preference to individual notes — and the atmosphere created by the order of those notes — over conventional melody. In my poem “Gymnopédies No. 1,” I tried to connect words in narrative and imagistic shapes that emulate Satie’s arresting phrasings in the Gymnopédies.
Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D major,” 1st movement
YouTube compresses some of the sound and splits the first movement into two parts. But my favorite moment occurs at right around 8:17, where you can really hear the sound of the violin and the orchestra hitting the back wall of the concert hall.
When I’m drafting poems, I most often don’t listen to music. But when I do, it can be pretty eclectic: anything from Jay-Z to Beethoven is fair game. When I’m working on prose, I listen to music constantly. Sometimes I play a game where I type bands into YouTube and see what is recommended to me. (That’s how I learned of Kid Koala, a DJ that dresses in a koala suit and spins records: I found him because I was listening to Emily Wells.) However, the piece that I listen to most — because I am obsessed with it, capital O — and that influenced many of the poems of Tongue Lyre (but one in particular) is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by the 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Fritz Reiner in April 1957).
I wrote “Performance” when I had a fever: I drafted it in bed, and I remember that in between reading, naps that led to bizarre dreams, drafting this poem, and tea, I listened to this piece. There is a Johnny Cash reference in the poem, so it might be surprising that I wasn’t listening to the Man in Black. But no. “Performance” was influenced by Heifetz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, the first movement in particular. The poem moves rapidly through constructed spaces: “I would be caught, like now, when I am nowhere but pretending to be / standing in the Pittsburgh Aviary watching flamingos.” When I listen to Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky, I am amazed at how quickly and elegantly he makes and re-makes the landscape of the concerto — as though conjuring it out of nothing. I wanted to try attempting something similar in a poem.
“Performance” from Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press)
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles
There’s a recursive quality to the song both in its lyrical and musical motifs that fed into the dialectical structure I was developing in my manuscript overall and that captured for me something specific about being the new mother of a baby girl. The poem “Through the Bathroom Door” is a direct consequence of listening to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on repeat and reflects my thoughts about the existence of the child in the adult and the adult in the child, the shifting but omnipresent shadow of the past upon the present, the constant vigilance that is necessary in marriage and parenting to separate the self from the other, and the fact that vigilance is an inadequate safeguard against living. The lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? / Didn’t anybody see?” just kill me.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” by Velvet Underground
I write about memory and from memories, so I need to listen to music that takes me back. “I’m Waiting for the Man” grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to write a poem, and pushes me into the gritty landscape where poems come from.
At first this poem, “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man,” might appear to allude to The Pixies, but in fact it is an homage to “I’m Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground, and was written in attempt to imitate the song’s arc and pace, as well as relating to its subject. It also includes the title of a fake Velvet Underground song, as a wink to the reader.
“Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man” from her forthcoming book, Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press)
(Fans of this poem will also enjoy Biddinger’s previous books, including O Holy Insurgency — Nick).
Sara Eliza Johnson
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 1st movement (Jacqueline du Pré’s performance)
I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of this piece often while writing the poems that would become the “Archipelago” sequence in my book, Bone Map, which is a group of poems inspired in part by the seafaring pilgrimage Saint Brendan undertook in the 6th century. The atmosphere of the piece is, for me, oceanic, and powerful in that way, like great swells of water rising and falling through the ear, threatening storm, and then shipwreck. In the video, you can see the way Jacqueline throws her whole body into the cello, and I think you can hear that in the intensity of her performance; while writing I tend to listen to music with intensity, with whatever will get me fevered and feeling unreal, and transport me away from thoughts of obligations and deadlines. In that way I suppose the practice is escapist.
Three “Archipelago” poems from Bone Map (Milkweed Editions)
Image Credit: Flickr/MaxiuB