“Songs,” according to Tom Waits, “are really just very interesting things to be doing with the air.” Much earlier, a vase made in the 5th century BC depicted Sappho with her book of poetry and the beginnings of a few scratched lines: “my words may be mist and air/but they are immortal”. For Fiona Sampson, whose thought-provoking study Lyric Cousins quotes Waits’s typically insouciant comment, breath is also all important, giving “musical sense to semantic content, and creating a grammar for sound”.
Yet Lyric Cousins, as Sampson stresses, has a far wider remit than song. Rather, her study considers poetic creation through the sounding board of musical theory, exploring the ways in which music – here mostly classical music or “art music” – and poetry might reflect on and illuminate each other. Sampson is not just a well-qualified but an entertaining guide. A concert violinist who became a much-lauded poet, she has also been the editor of the prestigious journal Poetry Review and is now a professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton.
Based on a series of Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures in 2009, her erudite and eclectic exploration begins with the various constituents of both genres, including musical time and poetic metre, form and phrasing, and the tricky issue of “meaning”. She then examines specific examples such as song, opera and the sometimes overlooked aspect of performance, including music notation, as well as extracts from poetry, contemporary and canonical alike.
As she explains, the brief here is to think about poetry “not as music but as if it were music” (her italics). And so a discussion of the “disobedient” notes of chromaticism leads to the work of the composer Olivier Messiaen; in poetry, she argues, such notes are “whatever’s put in the poem for sensory, rather than grammatical or denotative, reasons”, as in the “bat English” of Les Murray’s “Bats’ Ultrasound”.
For those who cannot pick out “Chopsticks” on a piano, this might seem like weighty fare. But Sampson’s lightness of touch waltzes us along as she “maps connections and intersections” between the two forms, combining high and low notes with ease. We move jauntily from Gabriel Fauré to Robert Frost and U A Fanthorpe via flat-pack furniture, or from W S Merwin through Marx (Groucho) to W S Gilbert. Meanwhile Charles Bernstein’s radical Language poetry is equated with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality and John Burnside’s “breath slur” lines are set against Mendelssohn’s use of fugue. Sampson’s own poetic voice remains perfectly pitched throughout; she sees the “turn” between the octave and sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet as being like “a hay-bale that needs to dry on the other side”, while her central image of a train journey, moving us through space and time, drives on her arguments.
It seems churlish to complain about omission in such a wide-ranging work. But given the tantalising references to translation dotted throughout, not to mention Sampson’s own experience as a translator of poetry, a chapter on these different performances of the texts would have been welcome. It is also a shame that, although there are passing mentions of Greek drama and epic, there is nothing here on poetry’s and music’s shared roots in ancient Greek lyric.
But these are quibbles. Sampson has the intellectual honesty to admit that there are no pat answers. In the end, like music, the writing of poetry, as well as the reading and the hearing of it, are all something to be experienced, “to be released by us”. How and why we frame that experience comes down to our individual consciousness, sometimes shared, sometimes separate, fluctuating with time. As Sampson’s train imagery underscores, it is not about the destination, but the journey; what matters is that “we are on the metaphorical train as it passes through the landscape”.
Sampson politely refrains from including examples of her own work in Lyric Cousins so it is intriguing to turn to her most recent collection, The Catch, published a few months earlier, to find new connections in her poetry. She adopted her trademark free verse and short lines, we now know, because of childhood bronchial infections (“How I breathe is how I think,” as Lyric Cousins explains) and yet her deep, resonant musicality remains.
True to form, some of the poems in the collection were commissioned for aural projects: “Stone Fruit” was set to music by the composer Sally Beamish and “Night Train” and “Neighbours” were written for the Festival of Sound at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In such poems language melts into sound, as with the “clustered voices” in “Night Train”, which become “overlaid in patterns/like birdsong or weather”.
Elsewhere she orchestrates a more overt intertextuality. For instance, the painted bowl of “Parsifal” returns us to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork” – the subject of a chapter in Lyric Cousins. And in “Zoi”, a stray street dog in Greece is illuminated in the evening star of Sappho’s Fragment 104(a), “bringing back everything the bright dawn scattered”, as well as transporting the reader to the beginning of lyric poetry – and music. But most of all, Sampson scores the delicate symphonies of the everyday world, such as the “blur of steam” rising “like a breath” above a cup of coffee in “Daily Bread” with
the word lying below it
waiting to be spoken you can’t
quite make it out what is it
humming all day out of hearing.
Like many of its poems, The Catch hovers on the edge of waking, a time of the subconscious, the non-verbal. Its lush and trance-like beauty is heightened throughout by synaesthesia, a technique much discussed in Lyric Cousins: for instance, “the light that rose up like/the odour of plums and of vines” in “Harvest”. Subtle and sonorous, these poems arrive “once again at/astonishment/at the brink of dream”. And, beside the cypress trees in “Arcades”, they exist both within and outside meaning, beyond category of music or poetry, as sound and word merge until they
. . . do not
know the morning or the evening
when it comes
they only know this speaking
that rises and falls
in them like song.
Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her new collection, “The Paths of Survival” (Shearsman Books), is out in April
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit