My professional life for nearly four decades has consisted mainly of veering back and forth between poetry and music. In 1994, when I received a big award for my writing about classical music, I told an interviewer that I hoped that as a result more people would read my poems. That probably hasn’t happened. But over the years, my association with musicians has indeed led to some of them asking to set some of my poems, with always interesting if not always expected results. As a lover of classical vocal music—songs, lieder, chansons—I enjoy the way composers (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss, Debussy, Wolf, Carter) present their own take on poetry, sometimes even making the poems sound better than they read. And since no two composers have the same take, each musical setting expands our understanding of the poems. So I’m always pleased when a composer wants to set one of my poems, and curious about what my poem is going to sound like when music is added.
One early poem of mine, a dramatic monologue called “Hannah,” in the voice of a rare book librarian looking back over her life, was actually set by two different composers. Jeanne Singer’s setting was a kind of musical snuff-box, a lovely, tender image of an elegant person living in a refined, quasi-Mozartean past. On the other hand, Rodney Lister’s setting was a microtonal vision of a soul in torment, dissatisfied with and pained by the pressures of her repression, the strictures of refinement and elegance. I like both of these settings. They expand my own view of my poem, though neither one quite captured my own idea of Hannah’s strength and austerity, the self-abnegation that made her, in my mind, almost a character out of Henry James. Both were expressively sung by one of my favorite singers, mezzo-soprano Jane Struss. What if those two diametrically opposite settings could have been performed simultaneously?…
Maybe more directly on target, in 1996, composer and music professor David Patterson, my colleague at UMass Boston, set my poem “Dead-Battery Blues.” This was a poem I’d always explicitly hoped would eventually have music. I wanted it to be sung. And I thought Patterson caught both its irony and jazzy “tunefulness.” Like Jeanne Singer’s settings (To Stir a Dream, Cambria Records), it too found a home on CD (Saving Daylight Time, Albany Records), with a naughty-little-girl vocal and edgy syncopation by mezzo-soprano Valerie Anastasios.
In the summer of 2008, as I reported in these Best American Poetry pages , I got the irresistible invitation to participate in an educational project at Tanglewood, in which the six compositions fellows were each asked to choose one of my poems (one of my shorter ones!) to set to music—songs that would be sung and accompanied by Tanglewood vocal and instrumental fellows at a recital a few weeks later in the Tanglewood Chamber Music Hall. I would be serving as a source of information, an “expert” on the poetry, an almost literal sounding board, whose feedback could help them make decisions about their musical settings. My poems—some short lyrics as well as monologues and dialogues not strictly in a traditional lyric vein—would be challenging and (everyone hoped) exciting for the fellows.
There was a wide array of responses. Some settings, I thought, really got the poems, a couple completely ignored my own intentions (a very short sestina using only one word to a line—in the form of an argument—became a kind of demented monologue). One setting interwove one of my poems with a Shakespeare sonnet. It was all very rushed and very intense, and utterly exhilarating. It was illuminating to sit in on the coaching sessions. The singers and accompanists were getting the scores piecemeal, a page at a time. One impressive young bass came to a rehearsal with a new page of his song and paused and stumbled and backtracked after every note, trying to get the microtonal pitches right. One of the coaches was the beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw who told him what every poet wants to hear: “Concentrate on the poetry! The pitches will come eventually, but you need to focus on what the words themselves convey.”
A year later, on another happy occasion, a fund-raising concert for Boston’s Emmanuel Music at the Boston jazz club Scullers, there was an evening of songs by the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Grant-winning composer John Harbison, who in his earlier days had composed a bunch of pop songs unknown to most of the admirers of his “serious” music. Harbison’s idiomatic familiarity with jazz and pop music played an important role in his most ambitious opera, The Great Gatsby, with its multi-layered party sequences (think Don Giovanni in the 1920s). I had even tried to write a song lyric inspired by his fox-trotting Remembering Gatsby, a concert piece that became the overture to the opera.
So when Harbison asked two of his poet friends to contribute lyrics for a couple of new songs he would write for the occasion, I was already prepared. I sent him the lyric I originally wrote with Gatsby in mind. But instead of a fox-trot, Harbison turned it into a gorgeous, seductive beguine—utterly different from what I had imagined, though he had to leave out a couple of lines that didn’t fit the new rhythm. The other new song was a raucous country-and-western number called “Stand By Your Grievance,” to an uninhibited lyric by Louise Glück. I hope these get recorded someday. In the meantime, Harbison has set two more of my short poems (including a new version of one that one of the Tanglewood fellows had set). The one I’ve heard, “In the Mist,” sung by mezzo-soprano LynnTorgove, is hauntingly evocative, and though I’ve seen the score of the other, I haven’t heard it yet and can’t wait.
The most ambitious setting of my poems is a new sequence by the 30-year-old Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, who—like Harbison and several other American composers I particularly admire (Elliott Carter, Yehudi Wyner)—is, as he describes himself, “obsessed with text.” Fairouz has set eleventh-century homoerotic Arabic poems as well as poems by Rudyard Kipling, Seamus Heaney, W.H. Auden, and a number of younger contemporary poets. On a CD called Follow, Poet, released on Deutsche Grammophon last year, Paul Muldoon reads Heaney’s “Audenesqe”—sung by the inspired Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey—and Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”
I’d been impressed with Fairouz’s music, and was pleased and curious when he requested to set some poems of mine. His first choice was a translation I did of one of the Brazilian poet Affonso Romano Sant’Anna’s poems about visiting Iran during the Green Movement uprising of 2009 (“On the Rooftops of Iran”). Fairouz used it as one movement, a moment of calm, in his ferocious epic piece Furia.
Then he turned to a quieter subject. When his beloved grandmother died in 2009, he looked to the poems I wrote about my late mother in my book Cairo Traffic, and chose three of them for an intimate song cycle for voice (happily, Kate Lindsey) and cello (Adrian Daurov), which was his grandmother’s favorite instrument.
As my mother began to lose her memory, incidents from her past kept bubbling up with startling vividness. One such memory came from her early childhood in a Russian shtetl. Her father was a harness maker and she was watching his horses in the river when their reins got caught around a pole. The horses might have drowned had she not run to fetch her father. I wanted to write a poem in which she tells that story in her own voice. And when I told her about my poem-in-progress, that conversation, one of our most tender, inspired its own poem. “He Tells His Mother What He’s Working On” comes closer than anything else I’ve written to suggest what our relationship was like: loving, playful, how she was always a kind of muse (and maybe knew that), and how much my poems have tried to preserve her sensibility. My first title for this poem was “Ars Poetica.”
My mother’s moments of greatest lucidity always left me with an anguished hope that more of her mind might be restored; that, like Orpheus, I could help bring her back from a Land of the Dead. But of course I was no Orpheus, and I never overcame my bewilderment about how hard I should try to help her—or force her—to regain her memory. Her identity. Who was she if she had no past? And if she had no past, what could be her future? Of course, there was no solution. Yet once again, my mother was inspiring me to write. And once again, this new poem, “No Orpheus,” is filled with some of the uncanny things—the poetry—of what she actually said: “I’m a stranger to myself”; “I’m an unstationary pedestal”; “My marbles are slowly rolling away.” And because Fairouz is a composer creating the music for these words, he called the whole cycle No Orpheus.
Finally, in “Her Waltz,” the third poem Fairouz chose to set, my mother is confiding to me her dream—a dream that both frightens and delights her, and allows her to laugh at herself (even at her most lost she was never less than self-aware). Her natural elegance, a kind of innate aristocracy, manifests itself especially in her final words—her oddly comical and poignantly formal farewell: “And now I shall bid you goodnight.”
In uniting these three poems for his song cycle, Mohammed Fairouz created a distilled narrative within the narrative—a portrait of my mother at her most charming and lucid, and of her son at his most amused and most desperate, and allowing her the last sibylline word. In the first song, the natural and colloquial dialogue in the poem becomes a kind of recitative, attuned to the inflections of the conversation (I’m particularly tickled by the ominous plunge into the lower register when my mother recalls that one of her cousins fell down a well—“a deep well”). In the middle song, the central song (Fairouz calls it an aria), it feels as if the composer has entered my subconscious mind, emphasizing—even revealing—my underlying desperation and urgency. And the last song is (what else?) a waltz, with wonderful extended melismas on the words “waltz” and “waltzing.” Here is my mother being taken seriously by someone who never knew her, a composer who captures her warmth and honesty, her slyness and directness.
The world premiere of No Orpheus, with Kate Lindsey, was at New York’s Tenri Center, in June 2010, and it has received a number of performances since then. Now there’s an exciting new development. Naxos Records decided to produce an album of Fairouz’s vocal music, with Kate Lindsey singing No Orpheus as the centerpiece—the album to be called No Orpheus (another possible title was Refugee Blues, referring to Fairouz’s setting of Auden, but everyone seemed to agree that No Orpheus would be the more intriguing title for an album of vocal music). The other musical settings include texts by Poe (“Annabel Lee”), Yeats (“The Stolen Child”), Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”—another poem about childhood), Alma Mahler (excerpts from her journals), Wayne Koestenbaum’s “oblique and eccentric” (his words) “German Romantic Song,” and erotic poems by two medieval Arabic writers, Ibn Shuhayd and Ibn Khafajah.
Part of the process of making the recording became, for me, one of the most extraordinary experiences—the phone conversations I had with Kate Lindsey about my poems. Let me say how especially delighted I was that she was going to be the singer for No Orpheus. That notable summer of 2008 at Tanglewood, one of the major events was the centennial celebration of Elliott Carter (with the celebrated centenarian actually present). Lindsey was singing Carter’s latest vocal cycle, In the Distances of Sleep, with poems by Wallace Stevens (he’d already set Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, and had a scintillating cycle featuring major 20th-century Italian poets). I thought this Stevens group was Carter’s most overtly personal text setting, putting to music poems that were themselves looking back over a long life. And Lindsey blew me away with how vividly she conveyed Carter’s piercing nostalgia, with what transparency she allowed the Stevens poems to become both literally and emotionally accessible to the audience.
So it didn’t surprise me that before committing her performance to an immutable posterity, she wanted to make sure she had not just the literal meaning of my lines but the nuances of the poems firmly in place. Like me, she wanted to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, but she also wanted to convey real feelings (would that more opera singers took the words they were singing with such scrupulous seriousness!). So Kate (we were now on a first-name basis) sent me recordings of rehearsals and I gave her feedback on little details, often questions of emphasis where the musical annotations were ambiguous. I read her my poems, and she read them back to me. I was already impressed with how much she was able to accomplish in rehearsal, but the final recording is even more impressive. She really worked on this piece in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’m thrilled with what’s on the recording.
(As I write this, I’m looking forward to coming down to New York on February 17 to join the delightful Wayne Koestenbaum, the superb soprano Rebecca Ringle and baritone Chrispher Burchett, cellist Adrian Daurov, pianist Geoffrey Burleson, saxophonist Michael Couper, and composer Mohammed Fairouz for a concert and poetry reading celebrating the release of the No Orpheus CD at (le) poisson rouge, 158 Bleeker Street.)