When words combine with music to sing out from the page

James Joyce, Seamus Heaney and Thomas McCarthy are among the poets assembled in a wonderful book of writings inspired by music, says Alan O’Riordan

When words combine with music to sing out from the page

“WRITING about music,” the much-quoted quip goes, “is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a reasonable statement in the sense that nothing can ever really make up for listening to the stuff itself. But it’s reductive in an important way –— it denies the power of words inspired by music to make us hear differently, to make us pause to consider a particular effect, or to explore the resonances that music and memory, intertwined, can have.

In these senses, writing about music is a fruitful pursuit, one that often allows poets to share a subjective response to a sensation that is easily accessible to the reader.

In Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s elegy to her musician sister, 25 years after her early death, she recalls the “pure line of sound that grows / rising dipping never landing twice on the same spot”. She writes of “the notes wrapped around her” and, in a final image binding these two, writes, “the line drew her along, the string and the bow, towards / the moment I saw the last breath leaving her body and the silence began”.

The poem is called ‘Hofstetter’s Serenade’, and thus the reader is invited to hear exactly what the poet does when she is writing and remembering.

‘Hofstetter’s Serenade’ is included by Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods in Fermata, their rewarding treasure trove of writings inspired by music.

“Words and music,” Woods says, over coffee in central Dublin one morning, “are two of the essentials of life.”

Music has played its part in Woods’s own works, from his poetry to plays like At the Black Pig’s Dyke, and Song of the Yellow Bittern. “As writers,” he says, “we try to look to music but also to find music in what we write. I don’t play music, and I can’t sing in tune, but from very early on I heard music, and I heard it veryclosely.”

Woods recounts some early experiences that themselves seem poem-worthy: listening as a teenager in Paddy Mac’s pub in Drumshanbo to the fiddle player Tom Mulligan; and his maths teacher, Stephanie Gibbons, to whom the anthology is dedicated. “She used to bring her record player in to school. We didn’t have music or art in as subjects, but during so-called free classes she would put on Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach and say, ‘Write what you hear.’ I was delighted. This opened a door for me into sound and words. I was away like a hare writing.”

Fermata is a work of long gestation, Woods says. “About 30 years ago, I met Eva Bourke in Galway. She and our mutual friend Mary McPartlan were organising poetry and music evenings in support of good causes at the time like the anti-apartheid movement. I was a young, fledgling writer and I read at one or two of those and we began this conversation about music. Thirty years on, there’s a book.”

Fermata collects the work of 65 writers, mainly poets, including James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Leland Bardwell, Medb McGuckian, Michael Longley, Theo Dorgan, Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, and Thomas McCarthy.

”“There are multitudes in the book,” says Woods.

“I love the mix. I love the democracy of the music. There’s country, blues, jazz, classical, everything is in there and everything is equal.”

As is often the way with these things, the title came pretty late on. “It was Eva who came on the term,” Woods says.

“I didn’t know it at all. It’s a musical term that indicates a very long, held note that almost enters into silence.

“For us, it became indicative of this space through which other forces can come — a pause where words can enter.”

You could easily make a playlist for a book like Fermata, and indeed there have been several events already which have combined readings from the book with music.

There are more to come, says Woods. In the meantime, it deserves a place in many a Christmas stocking.

  • Fermata is published by Artisan House. See artisanhouse.ie

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