Thomas Bartlett and Paul Muldoon weren’t surprised that lines by Ireland’s great poet worked so well as song lyrics, writes Padraic Killeen
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS had a somewhat paradoxical relationship with music. By all accounts — including his own — the poet was entirely tone deaf. And yet, despite this supposed tin ear of his, Yeats was wont to deliver his own poems in a distinctive chanting lilt that bordered on incantation, while he also very frequently collaborated with composers — among them, Edward Elgar — on the musical accompaniment to his dramatic writings.
That a supremely musical air is at work in Yeats’s poetry is evident in the copious musical transpositions that his poems have garnered over the years, the most popular of which include tunes by The Waterboys and Christy Moore. It is appropriate, then, that in a programme of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth, the National Concert Hall is staging an intriguing two-night gala where the famous poet’s verse will be set to music and song by a dynamic array of artists, among them Anna Calvi, Sam Amidon, Cathal Coughlan, and Robert Forster.
Named after one of Yeats’s late poems, Blood and the Moon describes itself as a “provocation on Yeats”, and in that regard the provocateurs-in-chief are American musician and producer, Thomas Bartlett, and Ireland’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, both of whom are curating.
Bartlett — a member of star-studded Irish act The Gloaming — was cajoled into overseeing the project while enjoying a pint with the Concert Hall’s head of programming, Gary Sheehan. For many years, Bartlett has presided over a similar ensemble event in New York, the Burgundy Stain Sessions, which he has gone on to stage in Ireland and Australia. So if anyone could rope a crew of musicians into a musical ‘Yeatsathon’, the American was the man for the job.
One of the first things he did was enlist the aid of Paul Muldoon whom he had come to brush shoulders with in New York (Muldoon teaches in Princeton University). “Without Paul there, I would have felt really out of my depth,” says Bartlett. “Paul is an actual poet — he actually knows what he’s talking about. But as well as that, Paul goes out to see a live music show basically every night of the week in New York. He’s very knowledgeable about what’s happening in music, and so he was able to help me find interesting parallels between poems and singers.”
In fact, in addition to his continued acclaim as a poet, Muldoon has in recent years become more visibly occupied with various musical ventures. As well as writing for opera and collaborating with Warren Zevon and The Handsome Family, he has played guitar with rock band, Racket, and current outfit, The Wayside Shrines.
“I love rock and roll,” says Muldoon in an email exchange. “It’s the predominant accompaniment to my life. And I just love what happens when words and music combine. It’s one of the reasons I’ve tried to write songs, operas, various bits and pieces of music theatre. It just makes me very happy.”
Significantly, given his curating of Blood and the Moon, Muldoon has in the past reflected on the blurred lines between poetry and songwriting, notably in his 2012 book Songs and Sonnets.
“The big difference is very basic,” he says. “Poems don’t need music, song lyrics do. In fact, this makes setting some of Yeats’s very “musical” poems — poems with very pronounced meter and rhyme — much more difficult.”
As Muldoon acknowledges, song itself was an intrinsic element in much of Yeats’s poetry.
“Yeats was clearly very attracted to the song tradition,” he says. “He was quite knowledgeable about the ballad as a form and used it to spectacular effect. He is the single best exponent of the refrain — a device taken straight from the song genre— in English. A striking percentage of his poems include the word ‘song’ in their titles.”
The idea that Yeats’s poems boast the germ of something undeniably musical is integral to Bartlett and Muldoon’s project in Blood and the Moon, of course. At one of their first meetings, Muldoon told the other man to open a Yeats collection at random.
“So I did,” recalls Bartlett. “And he said, ‘OK, read. Can you hear that poem as lyric?’ And I absolutely could. And I could almost hear a melody that justified that.”
Amusingly, this isn’t Bartlett’s first foray into scoring Yeats, although he had entirely forgotten his earlier dalliance with the Irish poet until the folk musician Sam Amidon — Bartlett’s childhood pal from Vermont — reminded him.
“Sam was one of the first people I called to get involved in Blood and the Moon,” says Bartlett. “And he said ‘Oh, wow. It’s really come full circle, hasn’t it?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“The thing is my memory is terrible, whereas I call Sam the custodian of my past. He remembers every single thing. And I had completely forgotten that when we were 13 or 14 this local theatre put on a show at Marlboro College in Vermont based on Yeats’s plays, and I wrote all the music for it. So I’d already set about an hour and a half of Yeats’s work to music as a child.”
For Blood and the Moon, Bartlett and Muldoon selected poems they felt would work for given composers and musicians, but also invited performers to pick their own poems if they had a specific attachment to them.
Among the poems that have made the cut are Sailing to Byzantium, The Second Coming, The Song of Wandering Aengus, and the Crazy Jane cycle.
Bartlett will be hoping the night goes as well as a Yeats-themed assignment he completed some years ago as a student in Columbia University. “I took a course in 20th century poetry and one of our assignments was to write a poem in the style of Yeats. What I turned in were the lyrics to a song from my first album as Doveman,” he laughs. “And I got an A+.”
You suspect that the audience at Blood and the Moon will settle for a similar score.
Blood and the Moon runs September 13 and 14 at the National Concert Hall www.nch.ie
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