Louise Carson enjoying the day.
We’ve been looking into the tricky role poetry plays when incorporated into music. So far, I don’t think we’ve adequately defined that role. That is appropriate, because what little investigation we have done has suggested that poetry’s role in music should be studied on a case by case basis, and that “tricky” is probably the most important word in any overarching definition of that role. Bob Dylan partially confirmed the former assumption when he asserted that he knows something he wrote is a song, not a poem, if he can sing it. And his best songs, of course, affirm that the distinction between a great song and a great poem is sometimes not worth drawing.
But not always. I got into this distinction in my recent interview with the poet Louise Carson. As a trained singer, she brings a musical approach to bear on her poems. When singing, “I’m going to—umm—love those vowels,” she told me, because “that’s what singers do.” She continues, “when I read [my poems aloud], I’m trying to do that too, and I’m also trying to do that when I write.”
This is in contrast to the speaking voice, which is so often the poet’s referent. Souvankham Thammavongsa, for instance, told us that she does not compose her work to create a specific effect, like minimalism, but so that it sounds like her own natural voice; she’s far from the first poet to refer to natural voice as a referent for their work (although if you hear Souvankham read, you know she’s telling the truth). Carson’s approach differs, then, in that she is suggesting that she specifically moves away from her natural speaking voice, and towards the artifice of the sung word.
Carson’s positioning of the vowel as central to the musicality of language could be confirmed by a number of poets’ work. A few years back, I discussed Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries as having a near musical effect on me as a reader. I had one line—“everything to me more everything than most”—stuck in my head like an earworm. The repeated “everything” in that line anchors both the repetition of the “o” sound in “more” and “most” and the contrast of “to me” and “than most.” Consonants are also repeated, but it’s the vowels that really stand out. This is true of all of Ossuaries, which has an irresistible forward motion in which the play of its vowels may add momentum or partially slow the pace. In Ossuaries, you can go into a near-trance in which it seems you are only reading (or hearing) the vowels.
If we were to simplify matters and split poets between those who go for natural voice and those who go for musical effect, Brand would be put into the music-as-base camp with Louise Carson. I’m not convinced that this is always the case with Carson—her Puritan poems have discernible musical attributes, yes, but could also be read as naturally voiced, and most poets would not fall into just one or the other category—but her musical training is often explicitly on display in her work.
I’ll leave you with evidence of that. Below is a video of her reading the opening of her collection, Rope, at the Tree Reading Series in Ottawa. She reads the first prose section and the first poem. At one point in the poem she breaks eerily into song. But clearly, it is a poem she is (partially) singing. So if it is, in fact, true that it’s a song if you can sing it, and a poem if you can’t, what do you make of a poem with parts that can be sung? Again, you gotta’ take it case by case. In this one, Louise Carson’s singing greatly enhances the poem’s effect. The shift from spoken to sung is similar to what happens in some rap songs, but that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, check this out.