This week’s Think Music columnist is poet Dorianne Laux, the author of Facts about the Moon and The Book of Men (W.W. Norton). She teaches poetry at NC State University in Raleigh.
I find it difficult to listen to music while writing, especially if there are lyrics involved. It distracts me from the silence, and from my present feelings and thoughts. Music evokes moods and memory. And it inspires. I often find myself listening to music and then feeling compelled to write. Still, I have to turn it off in order to begin writing. Poetry is a poor substitute for music, though they live for the same reason, to evoke emotion. Music is powerful; it makes immediate entry and swallows your being. One can get lost in it. And be found in it. If I could play music or write music or sing, I would not be a poet.
I do write poems about music and am working now on a project called Top Forty which includes poems about Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Mick Jagger, James Taylor, The Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Cher, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and women blues singers. The project began rather organically, writing a poem now and then about a pop star or rock song that I loved. When I saw how many I had produced over the years, I decided to try writing a poem for every song or artist I could remember. There are times, while writing, that I’ll stop and look up a song on YouTube or iTunes to remind myself of a particular chord change or lyric, or “wiki” an artist to see if I can uncover some interesting biographical tidbit that could throw a wrench in things, but I try to work first from memory alone, allowing the music to reach through the past and fill my head and heart.
I can write to the sound of distant music. I used to live near someone who practiced saxophone around dusk most evenings. I found myself sitting down to write around the same time so we could “practice” together. We never met. I’m not even sure which house it was coming from, but to this day I feel grateful to that ghost musician. I wrote a poem about that time called “Awake”.
Except for the rise and fall of a thin sheet
draped across your chest, you could be dead.
Your hair curled into the pillow.
Arms flung wide. The moon fills our window
and I stand in a white
rectangle of light. Hands crossed
over empty breasts. In an hour
the moon will lower itself. In the backyard
the dog will bark, dig up his bone
near the redwood fence. If we could have had
children, or religion, maybe sleep
wouldn’t feel like death, like shovel heads
packing the black earth down.
Morning will come because it has to.
You will open your eyes. The sun
will flare and rise. Chisel the hills
into shape. The sax player next door
will lift his horn and pour
music over the downturned Vs of rooftops,
the tangled ivy, the shivering tree,
giving it all back to us as he breathes:
The garden. The hard blue sky. The sweet
apple of light.
I’ve even been inspired by ice cream truck music, that light tinkle that seems to tickle the air, and the way it comes into your senses from a far distance and then slowly gets closer and closer. The Doppler Effect. The sound of it coming near is so sweet and the sound of it leaving so melancholy. It can also sound quite spooky and menacing. I’ve tried and tried to write a poem about it. Carousel music is similarly wonderful, too. That old weird America stuff, somewhat like The Band used to play. I like minor keys and discord. That seems to help me move into a place that’s ripe for poetry.
I’ll leave you with one of the more recent poems from Top Forty about Mick Jagger.
MICK JAGGER (World Tour, 2008)
He stands on stage
after spot-lit stage, yowling
with his rubber mouth. If you
turn off the sound he’s
a ruminating bovine,
a baby’s face tasting his first
sour orange or spitting
spooned oatmeal out.
Rugose cheeks and beef
jerky jowls, shrubby hair
waxed, roughed up, arms
slung dome-ward, twisted
branches of a tough tree, knees
stomping high as his sunken chest.
Oddities aside, he’s a hybrid
of stamina and slouch,
tummy pooch, pouches under
his famous invasive rolling eyes.
He flutters like the pages
of a dirty book, doing
the sombrero dance, rocking
round black foot, one hand
gripping the skinny metal rod,
the other pumping its victory fist
like he’s flushing a chain toilet.
Old as the moon and sleek
as a puma circling the herd.
The vein on his forehead
pops. His hands drop into fists.
He bows like a beggar then rises
like a monarch. Sir Mick,
our bony ruler. Jagger, slumping
off stage shining with sweat.
Oh please don’t die. Not now,
not ever, not yet.
Acknowledgments: “Mick Jagger” is reprinted from The Book of Men (W.W. Norton) and “Awake” is reprinted from Awake (BOA Editions).
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