Everything is music


The roof tops are covered in frost and a grey mist is dragging the sky low over the garden. Dawn is still coming later than I like but, surprisingly, on such a cold morning, there’s the beginning of a dawn chorus, or perhaps the stillness of the day is making the birdsong more audible.

I think one reason I have a sense of stuckness is because last year was so full of rich experience that I need to process it more in order to move on. Using a post-Christmas metaphor, I need to digest what I’ve already eaten (too much!) before planning and cooking the next feast.

Talking recently to Niall Hickey of Poetry Reach in Ireland, (pictured with Ger Campbell who organises the Irish Poetry Therapy Network),I was reminded of the convention he organised in Maynooth in September last year. There’s still a pile of papers and notes from that event sitting in the corner of my room.

One of the key poems for the four day event was by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, called An Poll sa Staighre/The Crack in the Stairs (translation by Paul Muldoon). It begins with:

Ta poll sa staighre/ There’s a crack in the flight of stairs
Istigh ionam./ At my very core
Ni feidir liom e a threascairt./ That I simply can’t get round or traverse.

I can’t find the full text online but there is a plethora of links to Nuala giving readings and many settings of the poem to music and also a dramatisation by a theatre group in Wales. In cyberspace at least, the poem has a stronger presence in oral or musical form than as text.

After the convention, Nessa McCasey forwarded us a link to this version by Elaine Agnew. Niall responded as follows:
‘Thanks for this recording of Nuala’s poem adapted as a song. It’s very beautiful to listen to! There’s quite an industry, too, in adapting Yeats’ poems to music and you hear them quite a bit on the radio. At some stage, I came across an Emily Dickinson poem adapted as a song, and it worked well. I was particularly interested, without knowing much about music theory, by the type of music that emerged from “The Crack in the Stairs”. I think that’s described as “atonal” or am I wrong? Anyway, from my interest in opera, I’m aware that composers, such as Andre Previn, are using this type of music in newly written operas, for instance Previn’s adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” for San Francisco Opera. It was done here by Opera Ireland, mind-boggling experience, better than the play, as it brought out the sheer beauty of the poetry of Tennessee Williams’ original play-text…

I think it’s important to us because our clients, in writing poems, are really, I’d say, composing music. One of the things I frequently do, especially when someone deprecates their own poem, is to read it back to them, asking them to listen, not to the words they have written, but to the rhythms of the “music” they have created, which ALWAYS closely reflects the feelings they are expressing, in a very clear way. They’re invariably surprised, impressed, and see more value than they had done in what they’ve written. There’s often something extremely energising about client-created music, as here, in the final lines of the song, when the singer suddenly, unexpectedly, accesses the music, as well as the glorious, blinding light inthe upper room (of their own psyche)!’
Somehow, although I can’t see them, the birds on this cold morning are acknowledging the light. And in Ireland, we closed the convention by dancing to music by The Waterboys, setting Mr Yeats to rock and roll.