Poetry is a song even the deaf can hear. There is a rhythm in its lines and a tune in its metre. And yet. No matter how blurred the dividing line, poetry and song are not the same.
As with books made into films, songs can be a way to popularise poetry, to make it more accessible to everyman and everywoman. O, I do love some poems for the sake of the sound they make, even if I do not pretend to understand them. But sometimes it is easier to love a song.
Here is one complicated example – Leonard Cohen singing his own reworking in English of Federico García Lorca’s Spanish poem. Firstly a fragment of Lorca’s poem in Spanish:
En Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
In English it goes something like this:
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of the morning
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.
And now Leonard Cohen:
Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning,
And it hangs in the gallery of frost.
I have to admit that with poetry much is lost in translation, either in rhythm and rhyme or in meaning. Nevertheless, I prefer Cohen’s version, but is that because the English here has a better rhythm/rhyme or because it plays out as a song in my head? Which poses another question – can a poem ever be unsung? Because once you have heard it as a song, the music will always influence your “reading” of the poem.
Many Afrikaans poems have found an extended audience when set to music. One of my favourites is HA Fagan’s poem “Huisie by die see” (Little house by the sea) as sung by Laurika Rauch:
Ek het ‘n huisie by die see. Dis nag.
Ek hoor aaneen, aaneen die golwe slaan
teenaan die rots waarop my huisie staan
met al die oseaan se woeste krag.
Ek hoor die winde huil – ‘n kreun, ‘n klag
soos van verlore siele in hul nood
al dwalend, klagend, wat in graf en dood
geen rus kon vind nie, maar nag soek en smag.
My vuurtjie brand, my kersie gee sy lig.
Ek hoor dan maar hoe loei die storm daar buite,
ek hoor hoe ruk die winde aan my ruite;
hier binne is die veilig, warm en dig.
Kom nag, kom weer en wind, kom oseaan -
dit is ‘n rots waarop my huisie staan.
Can all poetry be sung? Probably not. l don’t think one can sing Ted Hughes, for example, or Seamus Heany. Not in the same way as say, Robert Burns or W.B. Yeats. This is certainly no criticism of their poems or the accessibility thereof, it is merely a categorisation and a subjective one at that. Sung or unsung, poetry has a music all its own.
Is there a poem set to music that you particularly love? Please share in the comments section below.