I have been singing my poems on and off for a few years now without knowing there is actually a ‘sung poem’ genre out there, which is popular in Poland and the Baltic States. However, in discovering this, I also began to better appreciate the distinctiveness of my own sung poems, with their roots in a different land and culture, and it was then that I realised that these English sung poems merited a tradition of their own. Rather than continuing to enjoy what I have been calling my ‘song-poems’ in privacy and isolation, I believe it is now time to showcase them here in the UK where they originate, and to foster a movement that will establish the genre here; a genre I am calling the English Song-Poem. I hope to demonstrate the richness that sung poetry has to offer the literary and musical life of this country.
Sung poetry came naturally to me as someone who loves to write poetry, sing and compose but whose access to a piano has been intermittent at best. As a singer I often wished I had learnt the piano or guitar more seriously rather than the clarinet – try singing and playing the clarinet at the same time! However, a lack of accompaniment gave way to a love of expressing my poetry in ‘a capella’ song with its own enchanting qualities. Sometimes I do get the chance to add a harmony on the piano that is thin or sparse in keeping with the genre and which comes across rather like another vocal line, giving the impression of a duet.
The key ingredients of my original and thoroughly English version of the ‘sung poem’ are as follows:
- A Poem. The English Song-Poem is always a poem first. It is written free from the constraint of melody, and this allows for the subtlest and most beautiful rhythmic variations that come directly from the sounds, shapes and meanings of the words and phrases and the unique quirks and nuances of the English language itself.
- A Vocal Line. An often fragile and haunting melody is composed which adheres to the natural rhythms of the words and serves to enhance their meaning and potency. This genre also lends itself to having two or three vocal parts in harmony though still without (or with very little) instrumental accompaniment. When these song-poems are recorded, subsequent vocal tracks can be superimposed on the primary melodic line which use the same voice if the poet-composer prefers. In live performances there can be a ‘call and response’ or conversational arrangement with two or three performers.
- Imperfection. The English Song-Poem is most perfect in imperfection; when it is performed live, without any technological enhancement or pitch correction, and especially when it is performed by the poet herself. The rawness of a real and characterful, lived-in voice is what makes this genre so compelling. However, to excel in this genre requires a high degree of vocal skill. A performer must have excellent relative pitch, even though they need not be a trained singer. Then, especially if they are not a trained singer, they must work a great deal on voice control, tone, dynamics, tempo and expressiveness just as a professional singer would.
- Intimate Settings. The English Song-Poem is best suited to live performance in smaller concert venues where there is greater intimacy between the performer and her audience. This way there can be a real sense of a singer/song-poet’s physical animatedness and vulnerability, and of her vivid storytelling, just as if the performer and her audience were gathered in friendship around a campfire, sharing the most profound experiences of human life and the wisdom that can be gleaned from them. Indeed performances in outdoor settings have the potential to be the most affecting. (The English Song-Poem would also lend itself wonderfully to radio, where the listener, in the security of her own home or car, would be particularly receptive to this gentler and more nuanced art form and to the places where it can take us.)
- Context. To fully appreciate the English Song-Poem, the mood has to be quiet, reflective, thoughtful and open. For a fully immersive experience, the Song-Poem should be performed as part of a Song-Poem Cycle, which can be creatively interspersed with some poetry readings and/or instrumental performances in keeping with the overall theme and trajectory of the moment. Carefully choreographed, this kind of fusion art event can create atmosphere and enchantment like nothing else on earth.
Click below to listen to an example of an English Song-Poem:
‘The Ruddy Bank’, from the Song-Poem Cycle entitled “Summers in Amber” by Ana Wong 2013
Here is another ‘a capella’ English Song-Poem by Anastasia:
‘Midsummer’s Eve’, from the Song-Poem Cycle entitled “Summers in Amber” by Ana Wong 2013
‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, oil on canvas by John Singer Sargent (Public Domain)