Workshop, 25th September 2018

As a deeply sensitive poet with a keen grasp of the futility of existence and my own inevitable and imminent mortality, I always have a song in my heart and a smile on my face.  Music runs through the blood of the poet and I know of few who are not frustrated songwriters, folk who likely came to the solitary art of prosody once musical differences, as they are euphemistically called, broke up the band.  The pressure of being on the road with the same small group of irksome personalities will always come to a head at some stage, leading to an altercation in which one member of the band sets fire to another member’s 1955 Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar followed by a further rising of tension, during which a hugely valuable Steinway Grand gets pushed out of an upstairs window, falling through the roof of a derelict Pontiac Parisienne (rumoured to have belonged to Syd Barratt) parked in the street, where it will lie for three months while the remaining band member and sole council tax payer tries to persuade the authorities to remove it.  It’s an all too familiar sequence of events which has happened to us all, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, the distinction between lyric and poem can be subtle, and as historians never tire of telling us (aren’t you sick of tireless historians?  I know I am), quite recent.   Rhythm, repetition and some form of rhyme are key elements in both disciplines, just ready to be ignored when the writer happens to feel like it.  In my humble opinion some lyricists could make their songs deeper and more fulfilling to read from behind the LP liner sheet, just as some poets could focus more on how their work might sound echoing back at them from a room, typically a healthily lubricated room, in which some of the listeners are wont to get involved in the repetition.  We should not under-estimate the task of the lyricist, whose mission is to impart at least some meaning in a few listens.  However, poets will point out that the lyricist can miraculously inject a choice phrase into the listener’s head if they happen to be working with a tunesmith of sufficient talent.  As a result, I think that one is much more likely to find oneself doing the crocodile rock than sitting in the shadow of a red rock any day of the week.

At the Pitshanger Poets we do count some lyricists among our happy gang and we welcome the odd song.  Can you spot the song this week?  Alan Chambers as a fan of the syllabic form always keeps tight control of his stanzas – he was first out of the gate with an exploration of the wild currents of knowledge, or is it the weather?  John Hurley is a master of the regular four-to-the-floor rhythm, but this week chose to cast aside his traditional oeuvre for an enigmatic fourteen lines on nightfall at Glandore.  Doig Simmons kept strictly to couplets which could have been sung as he revealed the journey and relationship of a lifetime.  Niall Cassidy used a lyrical form to conjure a memory of his grandmother via his grandfather and his possessions.  Nick Barth brought back a piece which could not be described as a song, though it discussed a stop used by travellers, pilgrims and troubadours.   Michael Harris has found himself composing lyrics, and he tells us, performing them too.  However, this week he brought back three poems for a final polish.  Pat Francis brought us a poem about words, made of words but possibly too blank a verse to sit comfortably inside a tune.  Peter Francis is also a fan of free, blank, verse forms, but brought a spooky rhythm to a poem about a town by the sea, somewhere by the sea.  Martin Choules is happy to describe his work as lyrics looking for the right musical, in which case we are on the hunt for a composer fascinated with the subject of representative art amongst Islamic tile makers for this week’s poem – undoubtedly a sure-fire hit.  Finally, Daphne brought us a new take on an ancient Greek lyric concerning Persephone and the seeds she managed to consume in Hades, a character from the myths who would have benefitted from modern standards of food labelling.

Of course, from time to time a poet finds themselves moving the other way, towards the lyric.  If one happens to be a talented poet and novelist who also spends a significant proportion of ones’ life in folk music clubs the penny will eventually drop.  Fortunately for the Pitshanger Poets Leonard Cohen was still in transition to full time musical performer when he dropped in at a Workshop on a night off from a tour of the UK in the early Eighties.  According to our archives the poets were given an early version of Halleluiah, the words of which would eventually join forces with a tune strong enough to become a hit for Cohen and also for many covering artists.  However, back then Cohen was still in the process of distilling the 200-odd stanzas he had drafted down to the ones that would work well in performance.  In order to whittle them down Cohen delivered all of them at the workshop, together with a rating form and pencil for each listener.  Unfortunately, on that evening Cohen was the last reader in what had already been a long and fractious workshop.  The poets’ enthusiasm for the piece declined markedly as successive stanzas ate into post-Workshop drinking time and the later hallelujahs received short shrift, if they received any shrift at all.  Despite the desire to apologise for the unpleasant heckling Cohen must have received as the prospect of a pint at the Red Lion disappeared into the ether, the Pitshanger Poets are delighted to be considered one of the inspirations for what became a phenomenal musical career.  Leonard, you were welcome.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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