JMM 2, Spring 2004, section 8

Mary Kennan Herbert
A Poet Mines and Mulls Creative Connections between Music and Poetry

8.1. Introduction: Making Meaning of Music and Poetry

The Book of Nehemiah in the Bible tells music lovers and poetry buffs that there was plenty celebration at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, with “singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps.” A few verses later, trumpets were added, and the writer assures us: “And the singers sang loud” (Nehemiah 12:42, KJV). Biblical stories offer ample music and poetry. Recent translations of the Bible emphasize how rich the Good Book is, in terms of poetry, so that many portions are now set as poetry rather than prose. The Book of Nehemiah contains both; the Book of Job is often set as one long poem, and the Book of Psalms are, well, poems, often sung as David did while playing his lyre – as one may recall from illustrated books remembered from childhood. The word “psalteries” refers to lyres, musical instruments, but it also means a book of psalms. Thus a linguist and a musicologist can take note of yet another sign of kinship between music and language. And hopefully see a link to poetry too.

Getting acquainted with the Journal of Music and Meaning’s web page, I was pleased to discover this publication’s listing of links pointing the way to intriguing journals with special focus on the aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology of music. For example, I found among the listings the Journal of Music Therapy which was of interest because one of my poems was recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Poetry Therapy. I could see a congenial kinship among media, as well as among messages, certainly facilitated by easy surfing from link to link, from wave to wave. Technology has made it a fine time to be a poet. More than ever, a reader can find connections that add to the relevance of poetry to many fields, and new ways to dissect a poem– from the perspectives of linguists, musicologists, mathematicians, performing artists, theologians, or therapists. A poem is not limited to the literary critic’s turf. Or surf.

I am not a scholar in any of these fields. I am not a musician (see my poem titled “Piano Lessons” for an embarrassing glimpse into my musical failures). I teach literature and writing courses, with an emphasis on the didactic and practical aspects desired by accounting and business students. Then, in the evening after I have graded numerous essays, I write poetry because it gives me pleasure. Poems provide a way to help my memories survive, it’s a nice warm blanket a la Winnicott, cited in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word edited by Charles Bernstein. It’s comforting and fun to see my poems in print and on the web. Yes, there’s a generous dollop of narcissism in the exercise. When they are published, my poems validate my sense of self, who I was, and who I may yet become.

In looking at the concept of “making meaning” I have also discovered that in addition to Winnicott, others have useful things to say about how poetry fits into the idea/language/music matrix– Olson, Kristeva, Baraka, Minh-Ha, Mingus, Cage. Paul Simon too, of the seminal duo Simon and Garfunkel, offers insight. Simon’s song “Richard Cory” reworks Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem of the same title. I saw this intriguing pairing in DiYanni and Rompf’s fine anthology, The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, which contains an entire chapter on poetry and music. The first poem in many anthologies of English poetry is “Caedmon’s Hymn.” The word hymn is a clue to the ancient marriage of poetry and music: both were combined in religious liturgy and ceremony in most cultures, and were essential modes of communication in oral cultures. The ancient Greeks accompanied poetry performance with music - the poet carried a lyre onstage, and now often cradles a guitar.

Another journal in JMM “links” list is Eunomios, which on its own web page contains a charming reference to Eunomios, the musician who was favored by the Greek Gods. Here you will learn that when one of his lyre strings broke, a cicada came to the rescue of Eunomios and provided the missing note so that beautiful music would not be silenced. Cicadas are in the news again this summer, having returned from their 17 year absence, ready to fill in, I hope, for broken guitar strings or perhaps even to aid poets with writer’s block. The cicada who helped Eunomios made me think of another talented insect, Jiminy Cricket, whose vocal skills gave the Disney film Pinocchio a special sweetness. Birds too, combine the roles of poet and singer/musician, as in Shelley’s “To a Sky Lark,” in which the soaring bird is identified as a poet that sings hymns. And think of the wood thrush of such a poignant voice that its evening song would be appropriated as a symbol by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Now theorists may have some amusement in applying a template to these examples and sorting them into categories of orality vs. literacy, musicality and verbalism. As you like it.

Despite the close juxtaposition of poet and lyre/guitar/drums, not all poets seek to have their work to be set to music. Volkov’s book Conversations with Joseph Brodsky states that Brodsky seemed pretty firm on the matter: “A poet is the last person to rejoice at his poems being set to music, since he himself is primarily concerned with linguistic meaning....When music is added on to the verse, then from the poetic standpoint, there is an additional removes poetry to a completely different dimension.” Brodsky admitted that it is “flattering” to have one’s poems set to music, but the resulting product is something else. Is it no longer poetry?

Robert Aquino, chairman of the music department at Long Island University (Brooklyn, NY) asked to use four of my poems as the basis of his choral work which he titled Hurricane. I indeed was flattered, and I was invited to read my poems during the performance of the work. Then I heard the chorus singing words that I had written, accompanied by piano and bass, and the effect to me was unnerving. I felt an awkward kinship with the god Janus, looking forward and backward at once, hearing my poems as part of me and yet not part of me. This was an experiment in “making meaning,” a new dimension and a dimension new to me.

I have included here four of my poems with musical references, not part of a hurricane, but featuring both turbulence and calm. Before you take a look at the poems, however, I want to recommend a reading list. I hope readers will find these books illuminating and entertaining:

8.2. Reading List

  • Beach, Christopher (editor) (1998). Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics. University of Alabama Press
  • Bernstein, Charles (editor) (1998). Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Oxford University Press
  • Bernstein, Leonard (1978). The Joy of Music. Simon & Schuster
  • DiYanni, Robert and Kraft Rompf (editors) (1993). The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry. McGraw-Hill Inc.
  • Engler, Balz (1990). Poetry and Community. Stauffenburg
  • Hinton, Laura and Cynthia Hogue (2001). We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics. University of Alabama Press
  • MacDonald, Scott (editor) (1995). Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers. University of California Press
  • Minh-ha, Trinh T. (1991). When the Moon Waxes Red. Routledge
  • Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris (1995). Poems for the Millennium. University of California Press
  • Volkov, Solomon (1998). Conversations with Joseph Brodsky. Free Press
  • Wallace, Mark and Steven Marks (editors) (2001). Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. University of Alabama Press.

Here are four of my poems:


keys to life
88 ways to sign

or align the planets
while tickling dead elephants

if that turns you on
you have to start young

you do what you must do
to get to Carnegie Hall

a fine pie in the sky
but I began too late

fickle fingers of fate
forced to do sit ups

my instructor said
that fourth finger is lazy

we need to make it work harder
and arch, arch over each key

before stepping firmly down
to walk the plank into sound

hopeless cause
for fumbling paws

back to Bach

practice, practice

I was diligent each night
with elephantine exercises

why did I even try
because each key is there

every Thursday evening
I sat next to her on the bench

while she smoked and hummed
and drummed her bony fingers

in an echo of grieving
for how long would she

have listened to my Mozart
month after month

with no real progress
except the days got longer

when spring returned
the season of renewal

fast forward to a coda
my instructor is dead

to make a long story short
but you can’t make a long story short

if you play the piece
the way it is meant to be played

with time for silences
and a pace

that forgives lazy fingers
with aural compensation

for ivory folly
the wobbly hobby

one wonders why
when perhaps learning to bake

pies might be
beautiful music too

if a pianist would listen to
cherries singing or watch

when they sign to signal
some kind of chemistry

but my hands refused to hear
sweet notes major and minor

I would indeed give up
and the fourth finger slept

8.3.1. Some Comments about “Piano Lessons”

For years Bobby Short played a gig at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. His jazz piano and patter, his bubbly songs, were musical Champagne to accompany lovers’ trysts or even the early warning signs of divorce. Beginnings and endings across a small table, while the flirtatious notes of a piano waft urbanely through an elegant room – ah, to be part of such a sexy matrix. But first one needed to practice. Piano lessons were a rite of childhood in my Midwestern, middle-class neighborhood. Piano lessons could lead to the symphony as well as the cabaret, piano lessons offered discipline, a language of love, and entree to tuxedo-clad status on a stage in a concert hall as well as a role in romance. Yet as a child I refused piano lessons. I saw that regimen of practice, practice, practice as a sign of bondage and not a path to passion or creative liberation. The rebellious child chose pencils and crayons as the tools of choice, not the scales and metronome.

Yet as an adult in my twenties, I had a sudden desire to learn how to play the piano. It was a challenge I felt finally obliged to accept. Belatedly, I had learned how to drive an automobile and acquired a driver’s license. That particular rite of passage signaled the arrival of adulthood, but I was late in achieving the mastery of wheels typical of adolescent American lives. But I did learn to drive, so playing the piano seemed to be the next logical step. Why not Bach as well as a Buick? I signed up for weekly lessons from a woman who herself was a late-blooming pianist. She paid special attention to my hands and placement of the fingers. It distressed her to observe the laziness of my fourth fingers, and she gave me numerous playing exercises to strengthen those reluctant digits. After a year or so I could clumsily play a few bits of Mozart, and she told me proudly I was finally ready for another instructor who could provide more advanced advice. Or she tired of me. I had rented a piano which took quite a bit of space in my first apartment, a small studio that was the theater of my single girl’s forays into Greenwich Village sophistication. I offered to play for one of my beaus, a young man I hoped to impress. His primary interest was racing cars, but he sat patiently until the end of the final chords when I turned and asked, “What do you think?” He tried to be kind, but was candid in his reply. “You need a lot more practice before you get to Carnegie Hall.” Not to mention the Carlyle Hotel. I was unable to move beyond the basics, the required figures. I lost interest of course, and the piano was inevitably returned to the firm which then delivered it to the next hopeful musician eagerly awaiting its arrival. It would play its part in someone else’s dream.

(with musical accompaniment)

no mermaid i for i did not emerge wet-breasted
from singing seas onto these eastern shores
no stepping forth onto smooth pebbles of lore
no i did not discover America aboard small barks
running aground on wild grape scented shores
(a piccolo warbles and a snare drum talks)

maybe i did not begin my journey on puritan sands
though one could do worse than admire some believer
furling the sails and then kneeling for prayers
thanking somebody's god for safe deliverance
from jettisoned terrors of cathedral-decked lands
(quietly and distantly an organ’s tremulous tremolo)

so perhaps i should begin my tale on a pilgrim deck
sniffing bayberry and balsam and white pine and cod
awaiting me there in Viking tales of plunder
or where people with imagination could conjure God
and thoughts of white steeples and village greens
(a clean sound of a cheerful cluster of clarinets)

seen first in my eye and that sailor's i hope
coiling his rope and winding his sheets
and singing songs of tumbling together in the waves
and New England winters when we might keep warm
with maple sugar to sweeten our syrupy dreams
(ocarina and harmonica in perky harmony here)

no it didn't begin that way but could well
enough for New England was a good door to heaven
and hell for many a lass and many a sinewy lad
eager to delve and chop and haul and heel and plow
for the love of rocky hills and beckoning bays
(dulcimer and harp and mandolin merge into an echo)

i though knew all this only through history
books and stories and songs and psalms and prints
and paintings of Massachusetts and Emily's poems
and Henry's imagery bequeathed to thee and me
an American girl daydreaming my way through days
(Mr. Jefferson’s violin attempts a worthy solo)

and days drifting free on a keelboat down and
down the heartland river listening to the lap of
river water from Minnesota to the creole Gulf
listening to Mike Fink and Dan'l Boone telling
how this is how my tale begins not with news
(an accordion’s song skips across the water)

of New England sin but with Midwestern bluster
and river energy and corn and calendar pictures
of the Sioux on pinto stallions whose wise eyes
signaled beginnings of American conquest and epic
through Harry Truman's eyes and political neighs
(two guitars are not enough, but they play and play)

here in the Midwest is the heart of the land
Mike and his flatboat cronies and fur traders
and sod busters and oak armed settlers all sang
and they told me of taming the prairie to make
St. Louis the place to be if your name is Eads
(a piano on the bluff gives a hint of love to come)

or Lewis and Clark or Audubon or anyone passing
through on the way to fame while smoke curls
from a cabin chimney in Illinois where Lincoln
studies the law and dreams an American dream where
oak leaves uncurl each spring in Midwestern hearts
(that violin is back, disguised as a country fiddle)

oh my story could begin here in the late spring
snow or on the Father of Waters as ever southward
my American skin grows warmer and darker and
music makes me dance and wonder if my story must
begin here in the South in color and cotton and wars
(kettle drums and trumpets announce victories and loss)

of possession and glory so my tale must begin
here De Soto insisted sinking his Spanish sword
into the fertile black Mississippi soil up to the hilt
and Andrew Jackson and Stonewall Jackson and Lee
all agree with Cherokees and Seminoles and Africans
(tambourine and castanets and bagpipes too)

the story really begins here with the scent of
orange blossoms and honeysuckle and the fat full moon
on hot nights filled with mockingbird and alligator
songs of woo and revelation reflected in the gray
uniforms of thousands of dead good ole Southern boys
(banjo compelling the dead to rise and dance again)

reflected in the stained glass windows of slave-built
chapels where singing greets good ole Southern mornings
as a good ole team of mules takes a girl to seminary
to learn where dusty roads will lead her without guilt
to Southern town squares or New Orleans full of choices
(dented cornet manfully wooing behind the shutters)

yet where to go but West young woman west is where
your tale or your life truly begins where else but
on a cable car in San Francisco where the air is
delicious with choices and freedom to fail and the sea
once again beckons with promising white sails and gulls
(a cello swells the sound in wave-like rhythms)

winging south to Santa Monica where California dreams
provide all the sunshine and fog one needs for poems
and songs or beginnings or whatever a girl could want
to sell is golden here in the West if she will just
reach for the words and slather on suntan lotions
(saxophone and tuba join forces at Hollywood and Vine)

and now note that surfer dude on the crest of a wave
waving with those tan and supple arms as he planes
his way into my story with his own language and sunny
heroism escorting civilization west from Monument Valley
with John Wayne and Gene Autry at his side as he saves
(air guitar will serve us well or the memory of some tune)

us all to gather on the pier to hear tunes of bands
we western girls love to dance to under the light of
the American moon with orange blossoms tucked behind
my wet sunburned ears as i weave to the spell of modern
Sirens and pilgrims and pioneers dancing across oceans
(a new garage band in our hammy happy shadow)

8.4.1. Some Comments about “Adventures of an American Girl”

Musical echoes for the above poem are a coda in terms of creativity: sound effects in the last line of each stanza were added after the original version of the poem appeared in Coasts, a collection of my poems published by Meadow Geese Press in the USA. Adding imaginary musical accompaniment made the poem become new to me again, variations on a theme, a riff that conjured up a different emotional response. I was in an Aaron Copeland mood, imagining a symphonic orchestra as a back up band for a flamboyant lady poet in sequins and black silk, or a really cool guitarist providing riffs for my rhymes. To me, this long poem now is impossible to visualize without music, from sea chanteys to the Beach Boys, each stanza demands certain instruments with just the right music to marry the words. I was inspired by Carl Sandburg’s work and by Vachel Lindsay’s long poems as models for the format. Sandburg and Lindsay have been out of fashion for several decades, but recently both been rediscovered by critics. Both Sandburg and Lindsay wrote many poems for children as well as adult readers, and this poem of mine attempts to synergize a child’s view of American history as well as the perspectives of a teen-ager and the prejudices of an adult. The poem begins and ends with the sea, and the powerful appeal of the coasts. I love the imagery and symbolism of beaches and rivers, and I have often used references to water in my poems, as shown in the Coasts collection. The reference to a garage band in the very last line is deliberate, a current popular image of the beginnings of musical success – many a band has had its origins in a garage, real or hypothetical, another facet of the American dream as embodied by teen-agers of yet another rock generation linked to Plymouth Rock and Hollywood.


In a Wagnerian kindergarten I am handed a triangle.
Here, play this. An echo heard by Dixieland bands.

Not a yellow swatch of identity under the Swastika,
but a shining instrument in the Land of the Free.

Play this. First, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Practice for our Heartland recital for a real audience.

Ping. Ping. Ping. Like a submarine’s persistence.
I am new to the class, clueless, vital. Me, me, me.

You think this child will demonstrate precocity?
None. Klutz that I am, I show no rhythmic skill.

What do I know about playing a triangle? Play.
What do I know of rumors of wars or Nazi atrocity?

The orchestration of ideas becomes an old tune.
Alive then, long ago, and now here on an alien moon.

8.5.1. Some Comments about “Music Lesson during World War II”

The word triangle can conjure up horror as well as cuteness. Introduced to the world of musical instruments as a child in kindergarten, I was both entranced and alarmed by a simple shape, feelings shared by my fellow humans in war-torn Europe. I loved the simplicity of that shape, the gleam of the silver metal as it reflected the light, how it swung freely to and fro from a cord the teacher held, tantalizingly. Then she handed it to me, and I had second thoughts. Could I play this instrument? I had no musical training or experience and, at age five, this was the first time I was assigned to a command performance. We were to practice for a visit from parents, we were to make beautiful sounds. Unknown to me, as we attempted to make music, there were children across the sea who were dying. Only in retrospect, of course, could I see the irony and pity of this – to quote Hemingway – and in remembering my triangle solo, I could not isolate it from “lessons” about submarines and yellow triangles, albeit second-hand knowledge, that would await me in later years via textbooks, films, television, artifacts in museums, and grieving music.


Leo and Virgo tango
in the afternoon sunlight

sunlight gilds the lilies
while hummingbirds drink the day away

away go the sandpipers again
late day footprints are so sad on the beach

beach and garden are marked and labeled
by creatures and gods passing through

through each day a little bit of lushness
is taken and traded for foolish crimson

crimson blooms and brimstone tides
erasing yet one more poem about moths

moths crashing into my window in rhythm
document this summer’s love affair with Leo

harmonies of water and wings grow softer
and fainter borne by wind and piccolo

8.6.1. Some Comments about “August Chamber Music”

Many listeners think of chamber music as the dignified métier of a string quartet, and may be startled to see (or hear) the sound of a piccolo at the end of this poem. Chamber music, however, can embrace any combination of instruments. There’s just no conductor imposing order, the order and patterns – and the entropy – come from within and in combination with a few fellow musicians. Or moths slamming into a window of a country cabin – in rhythm. Summer unwinds, sometimes imperceptibly, into early autumn. August reminds me of dancers twirling like leaves, in a preview of fall. Also, the hummingbird seems heedless of the dwindling nectar supply. I recalled Emily Dickinson’s drunken bee when I saw a hummingbird in late August. Time, gentlemen, time. Last call. I was also reminded of the opening of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, in which the playwright’s instructions specify a lone flute playing sweetly and sadly in the dying of the light. Yet August does not seem like a sorrowful month until one looks at the history books and reads once again of wars and rumors of wars. I heard that more babies are born in the month of August than in any other month. That’s something to make one smile, plus the fact that the school year begins soon, soon. A time of birth as well as death, so the perky and confident sound of a piccolo is just right to add to our chamber music accompanying the end of summer. My mother was born in August, so there is probably a primal connection here that intrigued me when I wrote this poem. I have written several poems about August and when it arrives again, I may be inspired to write of it again.

—Mary Kennan Herbert, August 2004





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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

ISSN: 1603-7170
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