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Seconde partie: La voix comme trope

The Poetic Voice And The Voice Of Popular Music In Poems By Philip Larkin, Hugo Williams And Paul Muldoon

Adrian Grafe
p. 141-154

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  • 1  For the purposes of argument, I am using the phrase ‘popular music’ as an umbrella term to refer t (...)
  • 2  This view nevertheless requires some qualification. In poèmes et chansons 1968-1978, (éditions sai (...)

1An initial dichotomy when it comes to considering poetry about popular music is the apparent discrepancy, at almost any level one cares to mention, between the two terms. Popular music generally aims at entertaining a mass audience and bringing in as much money for the musicians as possible.1 It may dabble in the unbearable lightness of kitsch, and in some sense get away with it, which is something poetry can never do, in theory at least. In the poem ‘Sleeve Notes’, discussed below, some of Paul Muldoon’s choices of music are in this respect provocative and may be considered amusing but not necessarily intellectually or indeed musically respectable. Poetry, though it includes the pleasure principle among its ambitions, often sets out to be intellectually demanding—part, indeed, of its pleasure—in a way which may make it unlikely to reach a comparable audience, or readership. Both popular music and poetry, lyric poetry at least, are designed to be memorable. But a piece of popular music is also usually intended to have an immediate impact on the listener. Hence a certain ephemeral character attaches to it, though it is sometimes the very fact that rock songs are so ephemeral and capture so well the mood of a moment that makes them memorable. What sounds inconsequential at first may end up becoming unforgettable. In addition, one needs to be careful about generalising too much about ‘popular music’. Some of it is genuinely lasting. Poetry, on the other hand, great poetry at least, relates differently to time. It might furthermore be argued that poetry about music makes for a sort of tautology. The dividing line is barely existent between lyric poetry and music, or song at least. The prosodic principles guiding the use of words are likely to be similar.2 Moreover, apart from its subject matter a poem often creates a musical effect in terms of rhythm and tension.

  • 3  Eric Clapton, perhaps the most widely-respected rock musician of our time, has written a very fine (...)

2Nevertheless, the two modes of expression retain their own separate identities. The poet’s task when writing about music is to turn the emotion the music inspires in him into words. The imagery and metaphors of the poem should strike the reader as forcefully as the music struck the poet. If this is indeed the case, despite all the above cavils, a poem is to my mind an adequate response to popular music. The argument about the closeness of lyric poetry to music may be turned on its head: in this sense the very similarity of the two modes of expression makes music an attractive subject for poetry. What marks out the best and most distinctive popular music is acuteness of feeling.3 Now broadly speaking, in a poem about music one can expect to find two things: an evocation—the word is used advisedly— of the music itself, and an account of the thoughts, sensations and, above all, feelings aroused in the poet by the music. As Hopkins, whose sonnet ‘Henry Purcell’ is one of the greatest poems about music in English, wrote: ‘Feeling, love in particular, is the great moving power and spring of verse’ (letter of Hopkins to Bridges, Feb. 15, 1879; Roberts 76): so it seems that the latter should be capable of responding to music. In addition, this latter fact suggests that a poem about music might be particularly suited to intimate or autobiographical utterance, and indeed this is often the case. Poetry gives pleasure per se. A good poem about music is just that: a good poem. It therefore requires no extraneous knowledge, be it of music or anything else, on the part of the reader. In particular, the proximity of poetry and music means that the poem about music can simply be read as a metatext, and indeed the poems discussed below provide valuable insights into the ways in which the poets think about their own art.

3Nevertheless, poetry about popular music may, perhaps, deepen and broaden the reader’s response to the latter more than academic inquiry into popular music can. Conversely, knowledge of the music may deepen the reader’s response to the poem and enable the reader better to understand what the poet was hearing as he listened to the music and what he was aiming to put across in the poem—if not what inspired him to put his feelings about it into words. This in turn may help the reader to discern what is meant by the term ‘voice’ in relation to poetry, what the nature of the voice(s) of the poem may be, and to what the voice owes its particular tone. At the same time, these considerations beg the question of whether the reader hears in the music what the poet has heard and put down in the poem. Here a gap may arise between the reader’s experience of the poem on the one hand and of the music on the other. This gap is one of the most fruitful and stimulating ways of considering poems about music.

4Philip Larkin is a poet noteworthy for the different voices in his work, sometimes in the same poem. Of voices heard in his poems, as opposed to the voices of the poems themselves, one thinks of the thrush of ‘Coming’:

A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon— (Larkin 1955, 17)

5There is also the poignancy and nostalgia of the voice of one of the streetwalkers accompanying a funeral procession at the close of the fine ‘Dublinesque’:

As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty. (Larkin 1974, 28)

  • 4  For ‘For Sidney Bechet’, see Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, 1964. 16. Another poem from The (...)

6For Sidney Bechet’, more than any other poem of Larkin’s, voices enthusiasm. Thanks to the emotion it inspires in him, Bechet’s music carries the poet into a space which is not itself emotional but abstract or supra-emotional, as the negative is somehow well-integrated or overcome. ‘For Sidney Bechet’ is the only poem of Larkin’s to deal directly with a specific musician and his music.4 That the enthusiasm was perfectly spontaneous and genuine, and that he loved Bechet (1897-1959) in particular, with a kind of religious intensity, may be seen from a letter Larkin wrote as a student to a friend: ‘Thanks for the best letter ever to arrive at Oxford with my name on the envelope!...I rushed out on Monday and bought ‘Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning’. Fucking, cunting, bloody good! Bechet is a great artist. As soon as he starts playing you automatically stop thinking about anything else and listen. Power and glory.’ (Letter to J. B. Sutton, 26 March 1941; Motion 47).

  • 5  A comparable operation may be found in painting. The pioneer in this respect is Michael Zimmermann (...)

7The poem is at once intricate and perfectly unforced, as if the whole text arose from the note with which it so decisively begins: ‘That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes/Like New Orleans reflected on the water’. The poem stands for everything Larkin loved about jazz. He responded instinctively to jazz from his youth and until he died went on responding unaffectedly and warmly to the jazz he had known when he was young. Even though Larkin was well-known for his melancholic if not tragic view of life, at the same time the phrase ‘an enormous yes’ is also associated with him, and it is not by chance that this affirmation springs from his response to jazz. The sound of the soprano saxist in mid-flight conjures up various visual imaginings.5 This makes the poem a special kind of synesthesia. In this sense, Larkin is seeing with his ears, or rather imagining what others imagine, what they see with their ears in contact with Bechet’s music. As I understand the poem, Larkin himself, so delighted is he by the music, interrupts these imaginings of other people to focus entirely on the magic of the instrumentalist: ‘Oh, play that thing!’ The sense of presence and spontaneity here underlined by the exclamative and exclamation mark fixes forever Larkin’s love of Bechet as the music wrings a passionate call of encouragement from the poet.

8The effect of the poem derives from the encounter between the multiple images of the early lines and the poet’s own response to the music in the final tercet and couplet. This then is where the poem’s own note narrows and rises, and the joys of a lifetime’s listening to jazz are distilled and concentrated. The note culminates in the tremendous welcome the poet hears in the music. The enthusiasm of the poem is complicated—indeed, arguably enriched rather than diminished—by the implication that the poet has not experienced the affirmative power of true love directly but only knows about it through hearsay: ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should’.

  • 6  M. Chion cites Lamartine: “Le flot fut attentif et la voix qui m'est chère/Laissa tomber ces mots’ (...)

9Another of the striking things about the line is the verb ‘falls’. It joins up with the first line of the poem (‘rising’) to give the poem a rising and falling shape. It is when the voice falls that, in exactly the same way as the thrush’s voice in ‘Coming’, it becomes ‘speech’ (‘…your speech alone…’). Indeed, a cluster of speech-related words animate the last lines: ‘voice’, ‘say’, the ‘enormous yes’, ‘speech’, and ‘greeted’, which implies the idea of welcome and therefore happiness. As the poem comes to a head, the colourful images somehow die away as the music of Bechet becomes a voice, and the voice articulate. The movement described, that Larkin puts so well into words, can be propounded as a characteristic of human expression: a human being sends up a cry, a prayer or a chant, but not a speech. Words fall. Michel Chion, who makes this point, suggests that they fall because they are weighted.6

  • 7  The words about Chris Kelly are taken from: N. Shapiro & N. Hentoff, Hear me Talkin’ to Ya, New Yo (...)
  • 8  It might be worth pointing out that Larkin was quite open-minded about popular music, giving it a (...)

10Incidentally, as Larkin was a noted jazz critic, it may be interesting to compare his response to jazz in prose with the way he writes about it in the poem, though it should be remembered he was writing within the constraints of a broadsheet daily and not a specialist journal. Larkin does in fact compare Bechet’s playing to a voice: that of Melba, the early twentieth-century opera singer. Bechet’s ‘clarinet tone’, says Larkin, ‘soar[s] like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice.’ (Larkin 1964, 41). The historian of singing styles John Potter believes that ‘the relationship between singing and playing [in jazz] must have been very close [...Of trumpeter Chris Kelly a fellow-musician said:] ‘He really moves the people. He should have been a preacher. But he preached so melodiously with a horn that it was like someone singing a song.’’ (Potter 95).7 It is also enlightening to discover that Larkin believed there was a close link between the jazz improvisation and the lyrics of the song being improvised upon. He calls to mind ‘Lester Young’s dictum that the best way to improvise on a song was to think of its words as you were doing so.’ (Potter 278). In this respect, the distinction between the verbal and non-verbal elements in popular music is quite different to what it has sometimes been thought to have been. But to come back to the poem, if after reading it one listens to Bechet, one notices how attentively Larkin has pinned down Bechet’s holding and ‘shaking’ of notes: this refers to Bechet’s infusing a sustained note with a tremulous quality by a quickfire modulation on the saxophone. It is perhaps at moments such as these that his (Bechet’s) voice is fullest of feeling, and for Larkin fullest of affirmation. The poem ends by mentioning grief and pity, even if only to say that Bechet’s ‘speech... scatter[s]’ (which is not exactly the same thing as ‘destroys’) them. The poem suggests that the affirmative joy of the musician’s voice does not mean the absence of grief but rather the overcoming of it. The magic of the poem is to blend the musician’s voice with that of the poem itself, in which exuberance is underscored by a touch of sadness.8

  • 9  The Guardian, 23 May, 1998. The poem is not one of Williams’s best, but as its title indicates it (...)
  • 10  Contemporary newspapers apparently referred to Sinatra commonly and unselfconsciously by this nick (...)
  • 11  See Welding’s sleeve notes: ‘...the entire album was recorded at four sessions within the space of (...)
  • 12  This could be examined in the light of Adolphe Haberer’s stimulating definition of the voice: ‘cet (...)
  • 13  To the question as to what the word ‘swinging’ means, no better answer can be given than Fats Wall (...)

11This sadness is not nostalgia, though the same could not be said for Hugo Williams’s free-verse elegy ‘In Honour of ‘‘The Voice’’ (Frank Sinatra 1915-1998)’.9 His poetry seems so natural and flows so easily that the reader feels he is listening to the poet speaking. As so often in his work, what is notable is the setting of a large number of extremely precise details within the relaxed fluency of the free verse. These details constitute a remarkable feat of memory, with the poem, thanks to the intial discovery of the record, moving in a circle from the present to 1961 and back to the present. The details include not only the album- and song-titles, which in themselves contribute so much to the voice of the poem and to its mood, and the proper names, but also the naming of the kind of shoes worn by teenagers in the early sixties (‘chisel-toes and chukka boots’). There are at least three voices at work here. First, there is the poet’s, thinking to himself, remembering, evaluating Sinatra’s albums, and also possibly talking out loud, to the record shop assistant, in the last two or three lines. The second is that of Frank Sinatra, the poem-title alluding to one of the singer’s three nicknames throughout his career.10 As with the Bechet poem, the Sinatra one implies the value of the music being honoured. Williams does not describe Sinatra’s voice or music, doubtless a tribute to how famous it is. Be that as it may, one cannot indeed fail to be struck by the high artistic quality of Sinatra’s sessions with Nelson Riddle and producer Voyle Gilmore. This is down to Riddle’s legendary scrupulous preparation and Sinatra’s ability to sound both passionate and somehow ‘cool’ and spontaneous at the same time, together with, it must be said, a touch of magic: this seems, as I suggest below, to describe Williams’s approach to his Sinatra poem and to the singer himself.11 Third, there is the delightful voice, if it may be called as much (though hers was just ‘the first’), of Belinda Davey’s dancing, her ‘warm cheek language’, her speaking to the poet through her way of dancing close up to him.12 Indeed, the threefold repetition of the word ‘swinging’, plus the dancing couple’s ‘swaying’ accentuate the lilting quality of the poem’s voice and its hunger for the past: the poet is nostalgic for the great Sinatra period before the Beatles forced dancing couples to ‘move apart’.13 A parallel might be suggested here between the poet and the girl’s ‘mov[ing] apart’—as the total absence of physical contact characterised the twist—and the ‘never [seeing the record] again’ and ‘losing touch’ with Frank: the getting back into touch with Frank, by finding a long-lost copy of a record is a means of retrieving the warm swaying of youth, however chimeric this retrieval may seem. Despite the nostalgia, the poem is given a hard edge by the destructive forces at work in the text: the broken, trampled, scratched aspect of experience, perhaps standing as a metaphor here quite simply for growing up.

  • 14  From an article by Stephen Holden in the New York Times, quoted by Pete Welding in his sleeve note (...)

12Can an analogy be inferred from the poem between Sinatra and Williams? With regard to the end of the poem, one might indeed detect a similarity of intonation and even phrasing between the idiomatic phrase ‘Nice work if you can get it’ and ‘but what do you expect?’. Furthermore, one feature of the songs Sinatra used to sing is the way that as they come to a close they often tend to slow down and draw out the words of the last line. In keeping with this approach, one might hear mentally the last line of the Williams poem as sung, with the rich vowels of the line and especially of the last three words lingered over. Sinatra’s success was often ascribed to his way with a lyric, his ability to inhabit it autobiographically and make the listener feel he was singing intimately, about himself: ‘Through most of his Capitol years the singer, together with his best arranger, Nelson Riddle, expanded the expressive dimensions of pop music performance, treating American songs from the three previous decades as personal sound tracks exploring the range of human psychology with unprecedented confessional honesty.’14 It is this autobiographical warmth and subtlety which Hugo Williams celebrates by calling the singer by his first name and saying he lost touch with him for a while, as if with a friend. This warm and subtle voice is the one in which the poem is written, the one which Williams uses to honour ‘the voice’. It is not exactly a ‘copy’ (line 1 of the poem), but in spirit its warmth, subtlety and accessibility echo Sinatra’s. By honouring Frank Sinatra, Williams is indirectly honouring his ‘own’ poetic voice. If the singer is, through a natural metonymy, ‘the voice’, by analogy, the voice of a Hugo Williams poem is Williams himself. This would fit with one of the most striking aspects of Williams’s poem: how much, as far as one can tell, it reflects him personally, how individual it is.

13Paul Muldoon’s ‘Sleeve Notes’ is a polyphony, inhabited as it is by a multiplicity of voices (Muldoon 410 ff). This sequence constitutes the most sustained attention given to rock music in verse by a major poet. It is indeed astonishing to witness the Oxford Professor of Poetry and Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton write with such care and at such length about rock music, which is not usually considered as intellectually respectable at school and university level, which probably made it all the more attractive as a subject for a poem. Muldoon has given an excellent description of his poetry as ‘whimful’. (Wills II).

  • 15  ‘[P]art of the pleasure of a poem like this [i.e. ‘The Mudroom’] is the muddle, as one unlikely ob (...)

14Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader about the poem as a whole is that it is loosely autobiographical in structure. Muldoon measures out his life not in coffee spoons but in rock albums, beginning with his childhood in a small town in Northern Ireland, moving on to his life as a student and then radio producer in Belfast, his first marriage and its chaotic break-up, and finally his starting a new life and a new family in America. One wonders about the rôle of the music here, since the poem does not apparently conform to the traditional aim of the record sleeve note, which is to inform the listener about the music at hand. Despite the autobiographical nature of the poem, the music is not, any more than it is in the case of Hugo Williams, a mere pretext for Muldoon to write about himself. The poet blends or rather muddles autobiography, but also sheer poetic invention, with references to the record which lends its title to each section.15 The relationship between the writer and the music works both ways: the writer writes (more or less, and often less) about the music, but at the same time the music works as a commentary on the writer.

  • 16  In fact all of Hay (1998), in which ‘Sleeve Notes’ and ‘The Mudroom’ are included, is made up of p (...)

15If the poem’s content seems at times unstable and obscure especially in relation to the idea of the record sleeve note, it takes on a sense of order thanks to its sequential aspect. In fact, the poem reveals a highly creative use of rock. It gives the lie to the idea suggested by Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, that rock is only for the emotionally retarded middle-aged. The poem as a whole is a palindrome, with the rhyme scheme meeting up in Bruce Springsteen’s The River.16 This pleasing but somehow artificial or arbitrary form may be seen as Muldoon’s way of imposing an order onto the chaos of life, but would hardly be satisfying if that were all it were. Perhaps the most celebrated palindrome in the poetry of the last hundred years is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Prologue’, and it is therefore no wonder that Thomas pops up in ‘Sleeve Notes’. The ‘Astral Weeks’ poem is indeed fascinating. Not only does Thomas put in an appearance here, but also Yeats’s wife George Hyde Lees. This then is Muldoon speaking ‘as’ Yeats: with the latter’s voice, since it is the ‘I’ in the third line who marries Madame Georgie. The George and El Vino’s were two of Dylan Thomas’s favourite watering-holes in Soho, the latter one of the earliest wine bars—as opposed to pubs—to exist. Muldoon concatenates for a second with Thomas, as Muldoon was a BBC radio producer—though in Belfast not London.

  • 17  I naturally write here but for those unfamiliar with rock in general and the records written about (...)

16But what has the poem got to do with Van Morrison and Astral Weeks? The pluperfect tense of the first two lines can be explained against Muldoon’s listening to Astral Weeks.17 One of the major tracks on the album is ‘Madame George’: this accounts for Yeats’s/Muldoon’s wife being referred to as Madame. A great precision about place and place-names characterises Van Morrison’s lyrics, and the first verse of the song mentions Fitzroy Avenue in Belfast. The penultimate line of the song is ‘Say goodbye to Madame George’, which is in a sense what Muldoon does in this poem, and not only to George, but perhaps also to his youth. These allusions bring the voice of the singer into the poem. The three poets in question here—Muldoon himself, Thomas, Yeats—all share the Celtic and therefore perhaps bardic identity. But what about Morrison? In fact, despite his profound rock’n’roll or rather rhythm’n’blues sensibility, Morrison has often said he sees himself in the lineage of Irish writers, and often too throws out the names of poets like Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Yeats and Heaney along with those of rhythm’n’blues artists like Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. (Like Muldoon, Morrison is a great name-dropper).

17Morrison’s marrying of a poetic sensibility to a rhythm’n’blues one is in fact captured perfectly in the preceding poem on the Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet. First of all, how does the poem relate to the record on which it purports to be a sleeve note? As Muldoon writes at the end of another poem in Hay: ‘Go figure.’ It might simply be a case of Muldoon’s being cheeky, as the only music mentioned in the Beggars’ Banquet poem is his own, as a youngster learning the piano, and that of Morrison ‘as the frontman of Them’. Morrison is portrayed here as a troubadour, an identity he keeps as a bluesman even though he no longer has the external trappings (the ‘lute’) of the troubadour.

18Eric Clapton and his music wend their way through ‘Sleeve Notes’. He first appears in the first poem of the sequence, then by implication in the second poem as a member of the trio Cream, then in ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’, and finally in ‘Excitable Boy’, in which his album Slowhand is mentioned. The ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ poem is again very fine, and notable in that it focusses entirely on the album under discussion. With a pun perhaps on the sequence title, the poem begins by commenting on the cover, with its Southern house and leaning tower of a palm tree dwarfing the musician. Muldoon thus does something creative with the sleeve, including inventing in his description of the latter the portmanteau word ‘sepulchritude’, combining ‘sepulchre’ and ‘pulchritude’. The idea of the house leaning rather than the tree is perhaps a way of saying that appearances can be deceptive. The word sepulchritude, which includes ideas both of death and of beauty, looks forward to the guitarist’s potential suicide in the second stanza, his music often having a depressive facet. The marvellous description of the music, in the second stanza, focuses on Clapton’s slide—or bottleneck—guitar technique:

Through the open shutters his music, scatty, skewed,
skids and skites from the neck of a bottle
that might turn on him, might turn and sever
an artery, the big one that runs through his wrist.

  • 18  The word ‘skites’ might lend weight to the idea that Clapton’s alcoholism is being alluded to here (...)
  • 19  The second stanza also suggests in some obscure way that Clapton’s music and the world in which he (...)

19Here Muldoon takes the word to denote the instrument as it should be taken—literally. The idea of the bottle may refer to Clapton’s notorious alcoholism in the seventies and eighties—along with his drug-taking, which the mention of his main artery may refer to.18 Thus the poem has to my mind an implicit biographical aspect to it—this time with reference to the musician’s, not the poet’s, biography. The bottleneck is nowadays usually a metal ‘slide’, but used to be, as originally used by some of the early bluesmen like W. C. Handy and Robert Johnson, the broken-off neck of a bottle. Sliding this up and down the fretboard gives this style of guitar playing its characteristic sound, which Muldoon attempts in the first two lines of the second stanza to evoke.19

20The sequence is particularly precious in that Muldoon provides some insights into his poetics in it. This holds especially true for ‘Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy’. The poem begins cheekily, once again, by foregrounding not Zevon, but two Clapton albums. The werewolf is an allusion to Zevon’s song ‘Werewolves of London’, whose chorus is based on a playful imitation of a werewolf howling, as in the eighth line of the poem. The voice here blends, then, three different ones: Zevon’s, the werewolf’s and Muldoon’s. The last three lines show Muldoon reflecting, albeit lightheartedly, on his 1983 volume Quoof. Poetically, at least three things are striking here. First, it is noteworthy that Zevon’s characters and subject matter—never shirking, any more than Muldoon’s, the ‘dark side’—went into the making of Quoof:

…Warren Zevon, whose hymns
to booty, to beasts, to bimbos, boom boom,
are inextricably part of the warp and woof
of the wild and wicked poems in Quoof.

21Had Muldoon not told us here, it would perhaps have been hard to guess that Warren Zevon’s work had had such an influence on Muldoon’s. Second, Muldoon describes the poems as ‘wild and wicked’, a phrase difficult to interpret: either it is, as it first reads, rather light and whimsical; or one can take it literally, though it is more what happens in the poems, and the characters’ behaviour, which is wild, wicked, and altogether violent, especially towards women. Finally, the expression ‘warp and woof’ shows he sees his poems as ‘texts’, having a consciously and rigourously organised or patterned texture, like woven cloth. The poems’ sense of confusion and muddle, then, is to some degree but apparent and, more than that, is intentional. The image is a stimulating one for considering Muldoon’s work, all the more so as the image is his own.

22Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man offers a further revelation concerning Muldoon’s poetics: “his songs have meant far more to me/than most of the so-called ‘poems’ I’ve read.” The poet reacts here in affective terms to Cohen’s music on the one hand and poetry on the other, with the ‘meant far more to me’ being especially combative and the phrase “so-called ‘poems”’ condemnatory. This angry note suggests that in this poem as in ‘Excitable Boy’ Muldoon is speaking in his own voice, free of artifice or subterfuge. Perhaps Muldoon is suggesting that, to his mind, a Cohen song is not just a song but actually more of a poem than one which is merely printed. He might also be implying—it is a matter of interpretation—that a kind of aesthetic hierarchy exists by which poetry is considered a ‘higher’ form of expression than song: Muldoon would thus be subverting in true post-modern style such classification.

23In order to discern where exactly the voice lies in relation to popular music, insofar as Muldoon’s poetry is concerned, one may turn to ‘The Mudroom’, which sets the tone for the whole of the Hay volume. In this strange tale, Muldoon journeys through France, guided by a she-goat. They travel ‘past a shale outcrop of some of the pre-eminent/voices of the seventies—The Pretender, Desperado, The Best of Spirit,’ What makes these records ‘pre-eminent voices’? They caught the mood of their time, were articulate and accessible, and huge numbers of people listened to them. Also, they doubtless appeal to Muldoon.

24With ‘The Mudroom’ and especially ‘Sleeve Notes’, Muldoon is consciously bringing the pre-eminent voices of rock music within the orbit of poetry and its pre-eminent voices. This results in the upgrading of rock or the downgrading of poetry, depending on one’s point of view. He perceives the rock music he likes best as being as rich in aesthetic quality as poetry, if not richer. One rarely hears this view expressed, especially by intellectuals of the status and calibre of Muldoon.

  • 20  See Springsteen’s speech for Dylan at the latter’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, in (...)

25There are nevertheless broader cultural aspects to be considered. First, popular music of the kind these poems celebrate is not as unserious as is sometimes suggested: it is often as structured and as calculated in its effects as any poem. As Bruce Springsteen says, it does not have to be ‘anti-intellectual.’20 But it is in essence young, irreverent, angry, and sometimes insolent. Second, the music celebrated in the Larkin and Williams poems, and in nearly all of the Muldoon ones, is American. Even when it isn’t, as in the case of Clapton or the Stones, the sound and influences are clearly American. This raises questions about both the poetry itself and the voice, in terms of accent for example.

26Moreover, a good poem about music is not only that. The poems discussed above are not simply poems about music. As suggested at the beginning, they are poems about what the poet has felt when listening to the music being written about, and attempts therefore to evoke not just the music in itself but also the feelings it arouses in him and which he hopes to recreate in the reader. In this respect a poem about music would be no different to a poem about a painting. Or would it? A piece of music acts on the memory in a specific way. When someone calls to mind a piece of music, he starts to hum or sing it. He does not only listen to it in his mind’s ear, he somehow performs it, a term I’ll return to.

27But in conclusion I would like to look more closely at the words quoted from ‘The Mudroom’: ‘some of the pre-eminent/voices of the seventies—The Pretender, Desperado, The Best of Spirit.’ This enables us to deepen our understanding of the idea of the voice. The phrase is not an analogy but an apposition whose two constituents are divided by a dash. Hence, according to the phrase in question the ‘voice’ is not that of the singer or, by extension, poet; nor is the voice the singer or poet himself, as in the case of Sinatra’s being ‘the voice’ or ‘the voice of the century’, as he was sometimes called; the voice is not within the work, one of a number of features giving it individuality; the voice is in fact the work itself, just as The Pretender and the other albums mentioned are works. Popular music can be used, therefore, as a way of reaching this idea which may be applied to poetics. Looked at this way, Hay is a voice, and each poem in the collection is also a voice.

28One might ask the question: what makes a poem or a collection of poems a voice? One answer might be: that which makes it talk or sing; in a word just used, that which makes it perform. One might have recourse to Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance, whereby the latter term denotes individual acts of utterance. Hopkins made a plea for the performance of poetry, transitively and intransitively. Poetry, ‘the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance [...] must be spoken; till it is spoken it is not performed, it does not perform, it is not itself.’ (Roberts 137; The italics are Hopkins’s). The difference between speech and performance, and the possible interpretations of the latter word would require a separate study in itself: in particular, the idea of performance goes beyond that of recitation. Still, I would argue that it is performance which is the voice of poetry, providing it with its vocation.

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BERTIN Jacques, Poèmes et chansons 1968-1978, Paris, Éditions Saint-Germain-des-Prés/Le Cherche-Midi, 1981.

CHION Michel, Le Promeneur écoutant, Paris, Plume, 1993.

HABERER Adolphe, La Lyre du larynx, Poétique et poésie moderne, Études anglaises 100, Paris, Didier Érudition, 1998.

HARTLEY Jean, Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and me, London, The Sumach P, 1989.

LARKIN Philip, The Less Deceived, London, The Marvell P, 1955.

LARKIN Philip, The Whitsun Weddings, London, Faber 1964

LARKIN Philip, High Windows, London, Faber, 1974.

MOTION Andrew, Philip Larkin, A Writer’s Life, London, Faber, 1993.

MULDOON Paul, Poems 1968-1998, London, Faber, 2001.

POTTER John, Vocal Authority, Singing Style and Ideology, Cambridge, Cambridge U P,1998.

ROBERTS Gerald, ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Selected Prose, Oxford, Oxford U P, 1980.

WILLS Clair, Reading Paul Muldoon, Newcastle, Bloodaxe, 1998.

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1  For the purposes of argument, I am using the phrase ‘popular music’ as an umbrella term to refer to all recent (20th century) music which is not classical. For their help and encouragement, grateful acknowledgement is made to Elizabeth Angel-Perez, Martine Lambert, Paul Volsik, and Anastasios Zographos.

2  This view nevertheless requires some qualification. In poèmes et chansons 1968-1978, (éditions saint-germain des-prés/le cherche midi éditeur, Paris, 1981), the French singer-poet Jacques Bertin writes frankly and illuminatingly about transcribing the lyrics of his songs for publication: “...les chansons, par définition, sont faites pour être chantées. C'est-à-dire que l'agencement des mots y est fonction de l'oreille. Au moment de transcrire, l'auteur découvre comme un carcan les lois de l'écriture. Faut-il mettre tel mot au pluriel ou au singulier ? Ce verbe doit-il s'accorder avec ce sujet ou plutôt avec cet autre situé plus haut ? Dois-je mettre un point ici et là un point-virgule ? Partout, il faut choisir et enlever du sens. La transcription appauvrit considérablement la chanson. Les pauvres gens qui méprisent ce qu'il faut bien appeler la poésie orale ignorent combien l'univers de la parole vivante est plus riche que celui de la parole mise sous presse. [... La chanson] est riche de multitudes de sens, d'intentions, de jeux de mots qui sont le fait de la voix, du ton, de la césure, de la respiration.”

3  Eric Clapton, perhaps the most widely-respected rock musician of our time, has written a very fine piece about the blues musician Robert Johnson: “It was almost as if he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable [...] I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson (1911-1938). His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice really. I know when I first heard it [when he was around fifteen or sixteen, he writes at the beginning of the piece], it called to me in my confusion, it seemed to echo something I had always felt.”

See the excellent and informative sleeve notes to Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, Columbia Records, 1990. 26-27.

4  For ‘For Sidney Bechet’, see Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, 1964. 16. Another poem from The Whitsun Weddings (1964), ‘Reference Back’, takes its inspiration not from a piece of music or musician, though these are crucial in the poem, but rather from the thoughts suggested to the poet by the way a piece of music being listened to by the poet and (over-)heard by his mother, links them by setting up ‘bridges’ in time.

5  A comparable operation may be found in painting. The pioneer in this respect is Michael Zimmermann, Germany’s leading art historian and a Seurat specialist. In a remarkable lecture at the Orsay Museum in Paris in 1991, Zimmermann drew attention to the number of figures playing musical instruments, especially wind instruments, in Seurat’s paintings, and suggested that the observer of a given picture would hear mentally the sound of the instrument being ‘played’ in the picture.

6  M. Chion cites Lamartine: “Le flot fut attentif et la voix qui m'est chère/Laissa tomber ces mots’. [...] Le mot vient d’en haut et vers nous, il a donc un poids. Ce qui monte c'est le son, la plainte, l'inarticulé, ou le musical — pas le verbal : on n‘élève pas un discours, une formule, mais un chant ou un cri, à la rigueur une prière, avec sa dimension d'incantation.” (Chion 120)

See English expressions such as ‘to fall on deaf ears’. The term ‘cadence’, in music and phonology, also owes its etymology to the idea of falling.

7  The words about Chris Kelly are taken from: N. Shapiro & N. Hentoff, Hear me Talkin’ to Ya, New York, 1992,. 51-52.

8  It might be worth pointing out that Larkin was quite open-minded about popular music, giving it a fair hearing even when not jazz: this would help explain ‘his claim that Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was the best song ever written.’(Hartley 139).

9  The Guardian, 23 May, 1998. The poem is not one of Williams’s best, but as its title indicates it is particularly well-suited to the topic of this paper.

10  Contemporary newspapers apparently referred to Sinatra commonly and unselfconsciously by this nickname. The Daily News, when Sinatra was giving a series of concerts in New York City in October 1944, commenting on the teenage hysteria (twenty years before the Beatles!) the singer inspired wrote with an unconscious synaesthesia of a young girl queuing up for tickets: ‘One sixteen-year-old rallied sufficiently to insist upon being allowed inside to look at the Voice.’ See the 1965 piece by Arnold Shaw, ‘Sinatrauma: The Proclamation of a New Era’ in The Frank Sinatra Reader, ed. Steven Petkov & Leonard Mustazza. OUP, New York, Oxford, 1995. 18-30 (20). The other two nicknames were Chairman of the Board and Ol’ Blue Eyes.

11  See Welding’s sleeve notes: ‘...the entire album was recorded at four sessions within the space of two weeks [in the second half of November 1956], tribute as much to Riddle’s legendary preparedness as to Sinatra's insinuating way with these songs...’

12  This could be examined in the light of Adolphe Haberer’s stimulating definition of the voice: ‘cet entre-deux paradoxal où viennent s'articuler corps et langage, désir et signifiant, passion et courtoisie (Haberer 28). In the same way as a poem may be read, and indeed written, without recourse to the respective vocal apparatuses, while still setting in motion the two voices, the body may ‘speak’ without putting its meaning into words. In Belinda’s language of love, desire is expressed, if not voiced, without recourse to signifiers. The superb description of Belinda’s way of dancing might thus function metatextually if read against Pater’s famous dictum, quoted by Haberer in the same volume, that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’.

13  To the question as to what the word ‘swinging’ means, no better answer can be given than Fats Waller’s. When asked by a rather earnest lady to explain the word as it appears in the song-title, ‘It don't mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’, the singer replied, ‘Lady, if ya have to ask what it is, y’ain’t got it!’ The word seems to have undergone a change in meaning in the sixties, in England at least, when it ceased merely to refer to the rhythm of music like Sinatra’s and to describe the kind of wholesome young people who enjoyed his music and took on connotations of sexual and social liberation.

14  From an article by Stephen Holden in the New York Times, quoted by Pete Welding in his sleeve notes to the 1991 digitally remastered edition of A Swingin’ Affair (Capitol Records).

15  ‘[P]art of the pleasure of a poem like this [i.e. ‘The Mudroom’] is the muddle, as one unlikely object follows close on another.’ (Wills 191).

16  In fact all of Hay (1998), in which ‘Sleeve Notes’ and ‘The Mudroom’ are included, is made up of poems the end-words of whose lines rhyme with each other. Having, for example, discovered that ‘Sleeve Notes’ is a palindrome, one may attempt to read the collection’s first poem, ‘The Mudroom’, in conjunction with its last, ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’: the result is both tantalising and pleasing. That the poems fit into an easily overlooked structural framework, especially with regard to rhyme, and taking in poems from previous collections, has been sharply spotted by Clair Wills, who calls such devices ‘bizarre, almost terrifying’ (id., 207).

17  I naturally write here but for those unfamiliar with rock in general and the records written about in particular.

18  The word ‘skites’ might lend weight to the idea that Clapton’s alcoholism is being alluded to here, to the extent that the noun ‘skite’ means a drinking-bout in Scottish dialect.

19  The second stanza also suggests in some obscure way that Clapton’s music and the world in which he made it represented a potential danger to him, and it is perhaps no surprise to learn that he nowadays goes for weeks or months without playing, preferring instead to play a low-key counselling rôle at a rehab centre in London, helping young drinkers and junkies to kick their habit.

20  See Springsteen’s speech for Dylan at the latter’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, in David Gutman & Elizabeth Thomson (eds.), A Dylan Companion, Macmillan, 1990.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Adrian Grafe, « The Poetic Voice And The Voice Of Popular Music In Poems By Philip Larkin, Hugo Williams And Paul Muldoon », Sillages critiques, 7 | 2005, 141-154.

Référence électronique

Adrian Grafe, « The Poetic Voice And The Voice Of Popular Music In Poems By Philip Larkin, Hugo Williams And Paul Muldoon », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 7 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2009, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Adrian Grafe

Université de Paris IV Sorbonne

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