10/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Turning Poetry Into Music

Has poetry officially jumped the shark? I came across an NPR story this past week on a composer who set the "found poetry" of Donald Rumsfeld--pulled from some of Rummy's more quixotic press conferences and poeticized by Slate writer Hart Seely--to music. The composer, Bryant Kong, plays piano while an operatic soprano belts quotes from the former Secretary of Denial, like this now famous quote which Seely titled "The Unknown":

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

You can listen to the Kong's compositions as part of the NPR story here. I must warn you though: even Rummy might consider this stuff torture.

There is a long (and usually more successful) tradition of adapting poetry into song. Formal verse, with its built-in metrical regularity and attention to musical qualities, sometimes translates pretty easily. Yeats' "Down By the Salley Gardens," first published in 1895, is a good example. Yeats based the poem on a few lines he heard an old Irish woman singing, and he originally titled the poem "An Old Song Re-sung."

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

The poem was first set to music by Herbert Hughes in 1909. Here's a great arrangement/performance by the Yale a cappella group, The Whiffenpoofs.

Not all formal poems can be adapted so easily. Take William Blake's "The Tyger" for example.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Reading "The Tyger," it seems clear that the harsh meter (trochaic tetrameter) and oddly fearsome tone don't lend themselves to musical arrangement. Still, some have tried. Listen to this unfortunate adaptation. It sounds like one of The Wiggles trying to be edgy.

Similarly, I can't imagine anyone successfully pulling off an adaptation of the complex sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But--you guessed it--some have tried. This arrangement of Hopkins' "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire..." (text below) goes off the rails about 30 seconds in--assuming it was ever on them.

Cloud-puffball. torn tufts, tossed pillows ' flaunt forth, then chevy on an air -
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ' they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ' wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ' lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ' ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; ' in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ' dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches...


One of the more renowned recent attempts at translating poetry into song centered around the great beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself was a driving force behind the process, but he had some uber-talented help. He collaborated with Bob Dylan for a while, and his album of poetry adaptations The Lion for Real featured Paul McCartney, Philip Glass and jazz great Bill Frisell, among others. Singer Marianne Faithful mercifully suggested to Ginsberg that he not sing. The results are odd and entertaining. Here's a clip of Ginsberg and McCartney performing the poem "The Ballad of American Skeletons" at Royal Albert Hall in 1995

No word yet on a Rummy and Ringo tour.