Monday, 18 June 2012


A waste of time and money?

Perhaps you spent a miserable childhood being nagged to do music practice every night.  Maybe you are a parent who has shelled out eye-watering quantities of hard-earned cash only to find the ungrateful offspring never touches an instrument again after leaving home. 

So it was heartening to read Helen Farish’s dedication at the beginning of her new collection Nocturnes at Nohant (Bloodaxe 2012):  “In memory of my parents with thanks for all the years of piano lessons”.

I heard Helen read at Grasmere last Tuesday, together with Daljit Nagra.  Both poets read beautifully, sometimes speaking the poems from memory.  What a pleasure to see and hear poets who engaged so fully with their audience.  

I was particularly interested in Nocturnes at Nohant based on the relationship between George Sand and Chopin at Nohant, Sand’s family home, in the ten years following their first meeting in 1836.  Helen is reading at Ledbury Poetry Festival with a pianist playing Chopin – well worth going to if you can (Saturday 7 July 4.15pm at Hellen’s Manor)

Music and poetry go well together – content or performance or both.  Joanna Boulter’s Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich is a superb achievement, in which the poetic forms are directly related to Shostakovich’s biography and music, for example “Mirror Fugue”

As for individual poems with a musical theme there are so many I could choose.   I’ve selected some of my favourites and put links so you can read them (and in one case watch on youtube). 

“Bach and the Sentry” is set in the trenches of the First World War

Langston Hughes sings the blues in “The Weary Blues”

Michael Longley wrote a perfect (if a few years late) “Elegy for Fats Waller”

In William Carlos Williams’ “The Dance” the poet imagines the sounds “in Breughel’s great picture The Kermess”  Those peasants “swinging their butts” to “such rollicking measures” knew how to enjoy themselves.

Here are a few more without links – Sheenagh Pugh’s “Mozart Playing Billiards” (Song for the Taxman Poetry Wales Press 1993) and Pauline Stainer’s “Chromatics” as well as her short moving poem “After the Bread Queue Massacre” about the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović (both from The Wound-dresser’s dream Bloodaxe 1996).

Do you have any favourite music poems? 

And now, confession time: I’m a failed grade 5 pianist – but I’m a good listener.

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