Hart Crane and Percy Shelley raised a toast and danced a freestyle jig when they caught the drift.
Mystic Bard William Blake burned sage and refreshed his firewall.
Shakespeare and Black Lucy unwrapped a bedroll. Muses dream their own existence.
And I found the now dog-eared paperback Complete Poems of Hart Crane
that time I met John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis
rediscovered Shakespeare in a mining camp string band
bookmarked for future reference an anthology of English Romantic Poetry
improvised guitar settings for a handful of poems, and forgot about it.
Until January 2022, when Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” revived the desire to make music for some treasured poems. Greenblatt wrote that, while audiences in Will’s time had enjoyed the traveling troupes performing comedies and historical dramas, they hadn’t heard such poetic language as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2, scene 1: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.” Digging the imagery and realizing, “that would make a good song,” I tuned my guitalele and started strumming a Celtic jig. The song was there, and the music felt right, to Oberon’s delight.
Ten of the eleven songs in this collection were composed/conceived in the same fashion in January and February 2022 — read the poem, listen to the flow, get out my guitar and play, go with the first riff or chord progression that comes to mind, and work out the lyrics’ phrasing to be true to the poets’ intentions.
These poems stand on their own and need no musical support. Setting them in various styles I love to play was organic in response to the poetry, and intentional — for my enjoyment and yours. The present day song maker cannot be constrained by popular notions of time nor bound to any genre but the future. If the music does enhance these poems, it is thanks to the superstar musicians — I heard Anthony, Bill, Curtis, Cyoakha, and Josh in my mind’s ear working through the arrangements and am stoked they shared their creative talents to bring these poem-songs to life. Many thanks to them, and rising star Shavonne for singing in the “To Shakespeare” chorus.
Reimagining roots of my love of good poetry I acknowledge these are four Eurocentric white dudes — we read Shelley and Blake in high school in 1967, when Brian Jones walked in beauty and Jimi Hendrix set guitars on fire. We learned later on our own about the Harlem Renaissance. And in 1988, when I was an activist with the Indigenous Resistance Resource Network, and playing benefits for peace and social justice campaigns, I heard and met John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis. They set the standard for poetry with music, along with Kamau Daáood and Horace Tapscott, and Joy Harjo. For sure my music is inspired by Black and Indigenous Peoples’ musics, and hopefully honors those sources — and the many great musicians I have learned from playing in Celtic, Reggae, African, Haitian, Blues and ‘World Music’ bands. May this project shine a light on beautiful poetry, and lead listeners to seek out and discover today’s poets and the classics.
In his tribute to Shakespeare, Hart Crane distilled a whole book into 14 lines of potent poetry — placing Will in his world, and ours. The potentially prophetic American writer’s rich and intense poetry was often dismissed as too obscure by critics in his day — his vision and craft remain as modern as his contemporaries in the 1920s and those who followed, and as romantic as the Romantics he loved. Could he imagine “Garden Abstract” as languid Bossa Nova or “Island Quarry” intoned over a Blues riff? Like Will said, ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’
If the play within the song within the song within the play feeds hungry romantics, hear Crane as undying Romantic and Shelley immortal Modernist — as “England in 1819” rages through the ages against the violence and cruelty of mad rulers who cling leechlike to their fainting country. Was it coincidence a PM was laughed out of office the day I recorded my guitar rave-up? It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Especially since Wordsworth started working for the man.
Blake’s “An Ancient Proverb” answers Crane’s query ‘who shall again engrave such hazards as thy might controls?’ a century before it was posed. And coal dust black’ning child laborers sweeping church chimneys in 1822 is a poison still to be removed away. I imagine Blake putting the poem to a reggae beat, sharing a blue dream bowl with Bob Marley, and feel the psychedelic — mind manifesting — effect exhaling archaic words and phrases — Shelley’s ‘Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow’ and Crane’s ‘thine Ariel holds his song’ — revealing common themes and eternal truths these poems may hold. With Gratified Desire and so as not to bind to myself a joy,
I offer this opus. “It’s the Poetry, Man!” – PB