Marc di Saverio
This short interview contains my determined attempts to pin down Marc di Saverio on the definition of music in poetry. Notice how the poet’s interests return to the importance and effects of musicality whereas mine obsess over comparison and bifurcation. This tension reminds us that, for the artist whose concern is the spirited life of his work, too much probing may jeopardize the magic of creative impulse. Perhaps, in the end, one should not dissect a thing unless it is dead. If music brings life to poetry, as di Saverio contends, my analytical wont may represent its fatal nemesis.
Daniel Kincade Renton: In past interviews, you’ve discussed the musicality of your poetry. One might also argue that the formal characteristics of your work make you one of the more musical of all Canadian poets writing in English. What do you mean by music when you talk about music in poetry?
Marc di Saverio: Music is extremely important to me; music is the oxygen of my mind and the very blood of a poem. Without musicality, poetry is dead. Without musicality, a poem is never born, only conceived. Some poems are born but do not survive in the reader’s mind because there is not enough musicality to sustain its life therein, where there can be no imprints of points and counterpoints in the reader’s mind; so how, then, can a poem survive the eras?
Musicality is to poetry as paint is to painting.
Musicality, in language, is the drug a speaker or writer cuts his words with to ensure his reader, or listener, will return to the work and consume it again and again, until the poem becomes a part of the reader, listener, and thereby a part of history in some cases.
DKR: What kinds of music do you listen to? Do you think about how the music you listen to is composed? Does the way you think about musical structure influence the structure of your verse?
MDS: I listen to different kinds of music but prefer rock and roll and classical music best.
I think deeply about how the music I listen to is composed, especially the music whose instruments I find hardest to isolate. Analyzing the songs of My Bloody Valentine and the compositions of Bach, especially his fugues, interests me.
Regarding musical structure, much like my mentor, Ezra Pound, I experimented with applying sonata form to poetry, which I was fond of as a neophyte.
DKR: When we use the word “music” to describe poetry, do we use this word merely for a paucity of specific language? That is, is the music that we talk about in poetry the same thing as the music we listen to by The Rolling Stones or J.S. Bach? That is, is music in poetry literally music or merely a metaphor for something we can’t or haven’t yet defined with accuracy?
MDS: We do not use the term music merely for a paucity of more specific language, or at least I don’t.
If a poet is truly great, the music we talk about in poetry really is the same thing as the music we listen to—Stones, Bach, etc.—and, verily, people will want to dance to a true poet upon the stage, and shiver-given people will faint, cry, cheer, and be breath-taken by the intensity of a poets’ preternatural rhythm. When a great poet is reciting, singing, or rapping aloud, properly, with verve and fervour, the feeling of a concert will enter the aura of the room and the poet will beam his songs like a bright star, and the poet will successfully ensure that his audience—the dancers, the fainters, the criers—will re-read those poems to themselves, imagining the poet, again, singing/reciting his poems in the university or café or wherever.
Most contemporary poets have become anti-poets, striving for fashionably cold expressions.
Music in poetry is literally music. Poets not interested in music are not poets. The true poet never bores his audience because the true poet has prepared to ideally sing, and at very least exert his poems, just as intently as he has written them. Poets often think that reciting poetry comes naturally, and should not be practised; actually, reciting poetry well comes about as naturally as writing well.
Further, when the poet is not there to recite or sing his poem to his audience, the poem itself should be rhythmic enough that the reader, reading it out loud themselves, will independently feel the music in the poem and feel the dancer in their body emerging.
DKR: If there is literal music in writing—both in recital and on the page, as you say—is there also a part of writing that you would oppose to musicality, a part that is not musical, perhaps some purely and absolutely non-musical parts of language?
MDS: What makes a typical informational pamphlet written in flat prose different from a musically-endowed lyric poem is that the reader/audience will likely be moved, more so, in a particular, singular way when consuming the poem as opposed to the pamphlet. Although there are parts of language that might seem less musical—its concepts, for example—if a poem does not have music in certain portions of it, those portions endanger the poem’s integrity. I believe all a-musical parts of poetry—and I do not mean lesser musical parts of poetry—are not true portions of poetry, and should be amputated by the poet before he publicizes the poem.
There are poems where the musicality may become discordant or distant on purpose, as juxtapositions or foils for other more musical portions, but there should never be a point in a poem where there is no music. Such portions are not poetry and do not have a justified place in poems worthy of consumption, worthy of a memory.
DKR: Is there writing that is called poetry by some, which you might consider bad poetry or not poetry because it lacks music?
MDS: There is writing that is called poetry by some but which I might consider bad poetry or not poetry because it lacks music. Unfortunately, something like 95 percent of the poetry I read in today’s magazines and journals falls into this category. Most contemporary poets have become anti-poets, striving for fashionably cold expressions. Poetry needs inspiration and spirit—both of which are considered “uncontemporary” and passé. Most journals advise poets not to submit inspirational poems! I mean, these “poets” tailor their poetics to their own inabilities, thereby re-defining poetry as uninspiring, a-musical prose. Bah!
Most critics are not focused on the medium but on the message, which, without the medium being expertly employed, will never be happily heard, read, or remembered.
DKR: Do you think that poetry critics have a good sense of what you call the music of poetry? What could they do to make this aspect clearer?
MDS: I don’t think that most critics in general have a good sense of music and musicality. Music has been demoted and devalued in poetry and in poetry criticism. So many of these critics are pseudo-poets who write unmusical and soulless prose, calling it poetry and infecting the reader with a contagious, yet “current,” way of understanding, valuing, and writing poetry, a way that is going to die, along with the 60-year-old darkness of postmodernity.
DKR: What do critics talk about as opposed to music in poetry? What aspects of postmodernism do you believe are praised by critics but detrimental to poetry?
MDS: Most critics are not focused on the medium but on the message, which, without the medium being expertly employed, will never be happily heard, read, or remembered. A poet must master the medium before they should even consider his message.
Instead of talking about the music of poetry, many critics talk about the content—content that is often not expressed in poetic form, but rather, arbitrarily chopped prose.
DKR: Can you point at something in poetry that is pure music—that is purely musical as opposed to some part that is purely textual?
MDS: What I mean by music is the assonance, the rhyme, the repetition, the meter, the alliteration, the tempo, the rhythm, the dissonance, the consonance—and how they work together.
You seem to expect me to divide poetry up into squadrons, dissecting it, tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, but I don’t think these things you mention can be purely separated from each other. For example, musicality might be birthed from irony, just as a poem may be birthed by some vague concept.
DKR: Do you use the terms music and poetry interchangeably or is there an essential difference?
MDS: I consider them one and the same and I hope others do, too—and they must be one and the same if the poet is to truly electrify and imprint himself on any mind.
Splitting hairs about how magic happens is against nature, to me. I don’t feel very inclined to dissect gossamer.
DKR: Your idea of “music” is clearly more encompassing than the common sense of that word, which one might argue involves at least one musical instrument. Surely, there is a clearly identifiable difference between reading a poem aloud and singing a song. Would you agree with this?
MDS: Yes, indeed, there is a clear identifiable difference between reading a poem aloud and singing a song, but to synthesize reading and singing is possible—where the poet achieves an ideal combination of the two, which few poets have ever done well. Leonard Cohen comes to mind, as one of those poets who could synthesize speaking and singing very effectively, beautifully, and impactfully.
DKR: Would you consider songwriters and song lyrics to be poetic in some sense? Are they the same as poetry? Can we say that musicians who write lyrics are poets as people sometimes casually do with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?
MDS: I think some songwriters like Dylan, Cohen, Morrissey, Ian Curtis and a few others, wrote truly poetic song lyrics. No, we cannot say that musicians who write lyrics are necessarily poets, as people sometimes casually do, but I would say Leonard Cohen was truly both a musician and a poet, just as a troubadour was.
DKR: Do you think song lyrics can be removed from a song and work as poetry?
MDS: That would depend on the song lyricist. For instance, some of Ian Curtis’s lyrics are also poetry. It is the same with a very few others. I find rap is much more akin to poetry than rock and roll lyrics. Rap is, really, a synthesis of singing and reciting. I am especially partial to the poetry of Ice Cube.
DKR: Have you ever recited your poetry with musical accompaniment? Would you do this? What do you think of projects that do it, such as spoken word?
MDS: I have never recited my poetry with musical accompaniment, nor can I imagine myself ever doing so. I would, rather, write a melody for the verses and sing them while playing along on piano, ideally. I believe a poem must be beautifully expressed, ideally sung, to be heard by the universe, to touch the hearts of the masses.
DKR: Your upcoming book with Véhicule Press’s poetry imprint Signal Editions, titled Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Emile Nelligan, is a work of translation. In your poetry translations, do you make an effort to translate the music of the original poem or do you create new music? What difficulties are involved in this process?
MDS: Actually, this question doesn’t interest me, because music is composed through feeling, not analysis—at least in my case. Splitting hairs about how magic happens is against nature, to me. I don’t feel very inclined to dissect gossamer.
As a translator, I follow my intuition.
DKR: The title of your debut poetry collection is Sanatorium Songs. Can you tell me something about why you decided to call these poems songs rather than poems in the title?
MDS: I called them songs because I’d sing those poems in the sanatorium, hence the title.
Marc di Saverio hails from Hamilton, Ontario. His poetry and translations have appeared in such outfits as Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, and Canadian Notes and Queries. In 2015, poet and critic Shane Neilson, in Canadian Notes and Queries, called di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs “the greatest poetry debut from the past 25 years.” Di Saverio won the City of Hamilton Arts Award for Best Emerging Writer, in 2016. In 2017, his work was recited on BBC Radio 3. Forthcoming are his books Crito Di Volta (an epic to appear in Spring 2019 with Biblioasis Books), and Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Emile Nelligan (translations to appear in September, 2017, with Vehicule Press). He is working on his first novel, The Islands of Mania.