Stormin’ Peter Norman
E Martin Nolan interviews recent Puritan contributor Peter Norman on the ways he makes his poetry sing.
EMN: How do you conceive of the musicality in your poems? Do you deliberately inject a certain idea or strategy of musicality into them, or is it more natural, with you finding a spontaneous sound structure? How does this work out in the composition process? Can you go into what has influenced the way you think about a poem’s musicality (I suspect some King James influence, is this correct?)?
PN: My approach to writing a poem is primarily sonic: I want to create something that pleases the reader with its sounds. Meaning and theme are secondary—even when they’re the first thing I conceive of, I’ll still use music as the main method of tackling them (maybe I’m a frustrated would-be musician—my father is a classical musician and my sister is a singer-songwriter, as are several of my friends, and I envy and admire their compositions and performances).
That said, I rarely abandon sense altogether. Even if only at the syntactic level, I want the sounds to mean something, and I hope the reader will enjoy the way sound and sense pull together or clash. I rarely delve into pure sound poetry, though I have performed with sound poets and have tried (not very successfully) to compose my own stuff.
As for influence, anything lodged in my head can have an impact, whether it’s a poem I’ve memorized or a song I’ve listened to obsessively. And yes, the King James Bible is a big influence, as is the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, because I grew up in the Anglican Church and got a hefty dose of that stuff every week.
EMN: Pick a song you dig the poetic-ness of. Explain why.
PN: The more I think about this question, the trickier it becomes.
The first thing I think of is songs with ingenious lyrics. There are so many great examples from hip-hop (the old Mobb Deep classic “Shook Ones Part II” is still a personal favourite of mine), from celebrated lyricists of the Cohen/Mitchell ilk, from jazz standards, from musicals…from all over the place (and from my sister and my musician friends, all of whom write brilliant and often overtly literary lyrics…but I won’t snub one of them by picking a song by another!).
But of course the lyrics are not the whole story. They’re not meant to be digested on the page; melody, flow, delivery, and instrumentation are inherent in the art. So now I’m trying to think of songs where otherwise unremarkable lyrics combine with the music to create a poetic effect. But then what the hell is a “poetic effect”?
This isn’t getting me any closer to an answer, so I’ll just take a wild stab. Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With” is structurally very simple. Basically, it reiterates through various examples the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes, but then it finishes with an ambiguous twist. The somber piano chord progression combines with the chiming repetition of the lyrics (“No one’s laughing at God in a hospital/ No one’s laughing at God in a war”) for an effect that neither of them, in isolation, would achieve as powerfully. The lyrics show Spektor’s usual intelligence and finesse, but they’re also quite plain by her standards. And ever since I first heard the song, I’ve been puzzling over the implications of its last line, something I’ve also done with some of my favourite poems.
EMN: Pick a poem you dig the music of. Explain why.
PN: I love Margaret Avison’s sonnet “Snow” (also discussed here). Avison wrote only a few sonnets (one of them is a “sonnet against sonnets” that denounces its own form), but I think they provide an excellent vessel for her rigorous technique. An exciting tension arises between the spacious grandeur of iambic pentameter and the terseness that characterizes much of her best work.
Margaret Avison evokes the tone of her poems with a somewhat tense expression.
In lines 2 through 5 of “Snow,” she counterbalances that grandeur with sentences that flow over the line break only to stop short in the middle of the next line. The effect is choppy, the rhythm slamming the brakes whenever it’s about to get rolling. But then she closes the octet with a longer sentence that spills over four lines, concluding with a terrific triple predicate that, though lofty in its diction, also brings the passage down, sonically, phrase by phrase, from the cresting heights of the earlier lines, thus embodying what it describes (a retreat into desolate isolation, a sealing oneself off from the rich promise of experience and engagement…I think; admittedly my grasp on the literal meaning here is a tad shaky—it’s the music that has me rapt).
The concluding six lines—particularly the last three—have a wonderfully hushed, reverent music. This is where the snow of the title makes its appearance, and the sounds of the words evoke the snow-muffled scene they describe.
Avison’s combination of formidable intelligence and rich, dense, expressive music is what I most idealize as a poetry fan.
Peter Norman is the author of the poetry collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park, which was published in 2010 by Mansfield Press.