Warm Thoughts

March 9, 2014

Paris Ontario Agricultural Fair (from The Paris Star)

Paris Ontario Agricultural Fair (from The Paris Star)

A short lyric that I wrote a couple of years ago to accompany music composed by my brother.

(Thanks to Amelia for the encouragement!)

Midway Lullaby

When the moon seems out of tune

To the melody of June

We will know then that it’s lights out on the midway

[woman’s voice for the next two lines]

Sweet dreams, cool evenings

Sleep tight, sweet evenings

Please darling, hush—

 All that’s happened was foreseen

And I think I learned that somewhere in a daydream:

That all that I’ve cared for

Is you at the fair

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Happy Accidents

October 2, 2013

Word poster made by my daughters

Word poster made by my daughters

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

T.S. Eliot

Anyone who has ever tried to write something in verse—a poem, song lyrics—has likely realized, with mounting despair, that words get in the way of what one wants to say. Unlike a painter’s brushstroke, words appear on the page naked and unpretty, loaded with meaning made stubborn and static through their regular use as tools for daily communication. Words are primarily functional, and in that respect they serve us well. They create at least the illusion of a shared reality, however mundane that reality might be (e.g., “Hot enough for ya?”). There is, of course, great comfort to be found in everyday speech. No one would remain sane for long if we were somehow compelled to speak in rhyming couplets.

As I see it, the poet’s task is to manipulate words in order to overcome the limitations of words. Or, to say what words cannot express. This seemingly insurmountable oxymoron has led countless would-be bards to throw up their hands, develop a fondness for liquor, and (if the urge cannot be stilled) scrawl free-verse tantrums on soggy cocktail napkins.

But it is worth keeping in mind that words are man-made constructs—signs and symbols that have no intrinsic meaning. A tree is not a tree because we call it a tree. That is, words come after the fact. They are abstractions.

It is this approximate nature of words that makes possible the ambiguity necessary to communicate poetically, which is to say, emotionally. If prose is the language of the material world—everything that we apprehend with our senses—then verse is the orderly expression of our scattershot inner lives. The best poetry offers us a reflected glimpse of both our own felt experience and the experience of others.  There can be wisdom in those words.

Heavy

But how does one go about selecting and arranging words in such a way that the desired effect—or any effect—is achieved? Here I will speak only of my own lengthy but largely fruitless experience. With very few exceptions, I have not purposefully sat down with a blank page and attempted to compose something in verse. It seems unnatural to consciously will or demand something of my unconscious. I accomplish much more when writing poetry is the last thing on my mind. These occasions include, but are not limited to, walking, heavy lifting, and cleaning out the litter box. Certain lines or phrases sometimes burble to the surface and I immediately write them down. Even if I’m aware that the words are awkward, I save them. I have a notebook full of these fragments. Later, while reading through my lists of other blurted half-thoughts and impressions, I sometimes discover that a flimsy line fits well with an earlier, unrelated phrase to create a new and unexpected meaning. It’s like a mad experiment, with no hypothesis and nothing to prove. Most of my successful poems and lyrics have been, in short, happy accidents; a matter of finding significance in coincidence. To a certain extent, it’s as though the poem and I have met halfway, and what follows is a feeling of recognition, of reuniting.

And I will end this here. That litter box ain’t gonna clean itself.

Thanks for reading! Comments and criticisms are always welcome!

Calvin

Old English was closer to German and Icelandic than to modern English.

The book from which I’ve taken the following poem (“Poems from the Middle English”) states that this verse is “probably a love message in the form of a riddle”. I hope so. I like my love messages ambiguous. If it’s not a love message, it’s still a powerful bit of poetry. “The Reed” was clearly written by a masculine hand, and as a love message it possesses a clumsy but endearing quality, devoid of feminine delicacy.

Although “The Reed” was written sometime between the seventh century and the eleventh century—probably around the same time as the most famous Old English poem, “Beowulf”—it sounds very modern. In the last hundred years or so—thanks to poets like T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins—our ears have become accustomed to irregular meter, the lack of a rhyming scheme, and the use of concrete, Anglo Saxon words to express complex sentiments. This poem would have been deemed barbaric (if recognized as a poem at all) had it been written in the more mannered and genteel ages that mark English poetry of the last five hundred years. Power metal bands take note.

Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you enjoy the poem!

Calvin

Riddle #60: The Reed

I grew where life had come to me, along

The sandy shore, where the sea foamed in

Below a cliff. Men came

To my empty land only by accident.

But every dawn a brown wave swept

Around me with watery arms. How

Could I ever imagine a time when, mouthless,

I’d sing across the benches where mead

Was poured, and carried secret speech?

What a strange and wonderful thing to someone

Who puzzles , but neither sees nor knows,

That the point of a knife and a strong right hand

Should press and carve me, a keen blade

And the mind of a man joined together

To make me a message-bearer to your ears

Alone, boldly bringing you what no one

Else could carry and no one hears!

 

Holy crap! I think I’ve got this thing figured out! Click the “Come Next Summer” link to listen to the music, and see below for the accompanying lyrics. Crazy, man.

Come Next Summer

Come Next Summer

(That star, it is an arrow in the night)

I’ve forgotten your name

Maybe a chilling autumn breeze has seized and eaten it

 

Every word, you said, is a secret

Every word, you said, is a spell

Every word, you said, is a fading

Fearful–

Fortress standing guarded by an army of the cold dead lost and lonely

 

Offering up all reason

To the season of love

 

Every day, you said, is a mirror

Every day, you said, is another tragedy

Every day, you said, is a warm, close, bright

Sweet tomorrow

 

But that was back when the world had wings

Before the hands of time cut down to the bone

I’m going to take our castles of sand

And turn that sand back into stone

 

Is there such a thing as forever?

If you change the dream

Do you change the dreamer, too?

Do you change the dreamer’s dreaming?

 

Do you hear an old

Favourite melody

Drift across the waves

Tonight?

 

It’s a song that freezes a place in time

And it’s a song that’s called You’re Never Alone

I’m going to take our castles of sand

And turn that sand back into stone

 

Come next summer

Come next summer

Come next summer

I have written comedy, fiction, scripts, poems, articles, and technical stuff, but never song lyrics. My brother Jerry, a musician who can play many instruments with some level of virtuosity, changed all that. Though no slouch as a writer himself, he asked me to pen some lyrics for a three-minute piece of music that he had composed and roughly recorded (hope to provide link to song soon). I received the lyric-less music file by e-mail, listened to it, listened to it again, and then thought, “It’s a nice song, but there’s no way in hell that I can do this.” But I did do it. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way.

MEMORIZE THE SONG

I nearly fell off the rails right here, at the very beginning. Why? I tried to write along with the melody of the music, hoping that the words would pop into my head and that I’d essentially be taking dictation from a selection of personal muses. No chance! The stream-of-consciousness experiment was a disaster. No muse can maintain that pace.

Clearly needing some kind of creative anchor, I had no choice but to memorize the song. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but I highly recommend that you know the song inside and out before you even begin to think of lyrics. Know it until you catch yourself humming it. You will be rewarded.

BREAK THE SONG INTO DISCRETE SECTIONS

Writing lyrics for an existing music track involves a lot of heavy mental lifting. It’s not like going up to the store to buy a carton of milk. It can be frustrating, and feeling emotionally and mentally taxed can take a toll on your patience, and therefore your talent. I survived this far in the process by recalling that Jerry taught me the three essential parts of any pop/rock song. This gave me the structure I needed. The three essential parts, with lyrical examples from The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, are:

  • The “A” part: This is your standard verse (“Little darling/It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter”, etc.)
  • The “B” part: Think of this as your chorus (“Here comes the sun…”)
  • The “C” part: This is the part that adds a bit of spice to the song. It might only be used once. (In “Here Comes the Sun”, it’s the part of the song that repeats “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes” several times in a kind of falsetto voice.)

WRITE

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s do or die. It’s time to start hanging words on your musical skeleton. I offer only a few tips when it comes to actually writing the lyrics, since you’ll have your own ideas about how to express the ineffable. Generally, I take a playful approach with words, but I’m not a fan of obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I guess I sort of “de-construct” poetic conventions, but put them tidily back in their proper places before anyone notices.

I advise against overwriting. If something isn’t working, and you force it too hard, the strain will show. What could have been cool now sounds only unhinged. Editing is, of course, a must, but chisel gently. At this point, familiarity with your lyrics may have bred some contempt, but now is not the time to let it show. Just let it flow.

A few words about choruses. As a lyricist, you’ll want your chorus to showcase your best writing. Musicians might appreciate that, pat you on the head, and give you an “A” for effort, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t hesitate to rip it to shreds or rewrite it entirely. Why? Because, you see, this is the musician’s moment to shine. Sometimes, simple is cooler than fancy. A simple “Yeah!” might be all that’s needed. Let’s look at the Beatles’ song: “Here comes the sun/Here comes the sun/I say/It’s alright”. Very simple, very nice.

WAIT AND LISTEN!

So you send your lyrics to your version of my brother, hoping that you’ll hear a completed draft of the song within a couple of weeks. Don’t get your hopes up. I wrote that song four years ago, and my brother still hasn’t gotten around to recording it. I shrug and persevere.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin