Adam Ash

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Bookplanet: serious poetry sung by a supermodel

The Supermodel School of Poetry

There is something to be said for the silence of the page. On it, a poem — three neat quatrains, say — can speak, indestructibly, to the eye, ear, and mind.

But there is also something to be said for singing along. Recently I found myself doing just that to a poem by, of all people, Emily Dickinson, as performed by, of all people, Carla Bruni, the Italian ex-supermodel and ex-girlfriend of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Donald Trump. Dickinson's poem, "I Went to Heaven," is featured on Ms. Bruni's new album, "No Promises." On it, she sets to music poems by W.B. Yeats, Dorothy Parker, Walter de la Mare, W.H. Auden, and Christina Rossetti, among others.

To the strumming of an acoustic guitar, the Dickinson poem — or can it now also be classified as a song lyric? — begins:

I went to Heaven
‘Twas a small Town
Lit, with a Ruby
Lathed, with Down
Stiller, than the fields
At the full Dew
Beautiful, as Pictures
No Man drew.

As you might expect, it's very beautiful. Paul Muldoon, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and has co-written rock songs himself (he collaborated with the late Warren Zevon), has not heard Ms. Bruni's album, but said, "anything that expands our sense of what poetry might be, that poetry is not a scary object written by a bunch of dead guys to be held at arms' length, is really good news."

Mr. Muldoon pointed out that much of Dickinson's poetry is written "in what is essentially a hymn structure," and can therefore readily be set to music. "It's almost impossible not to be able to set it to music," he said.

Even poetry-lovers have poets they don't quite "get." For me, Dickinson has been one of them. The revelation in hearing her verse sung was that I no longer really needed to. Because I was enjoying the music, Dickinson's words (which become progressively stranger as the poem proceeds) were able to seduce me slowly, hypnotically, because a successful pop song is, by definition, something listened to repeatedly. That's why it's a stroke of genius to place poems that might strike some as off-puttingly archaic on the page in a pop setting: The music does the work for you, while the words can seep slowly into your mind.

Ms. Bruni, 39, has a small, husky voice whose charm lies in its tousled, just-got-out-of-bed timbre. She recently told the Times of London that she began reading English and American poetry in order to find inspiration for her own songwriting. And then the idea came simply to record the poems she was reading. People have done this before — Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison have each recorded a poem by Yeats, and Leonard Cohen has sung poems by Lorca and Byron. In 2002, the Scottish singer James Grant released an excellent album of poetry, "I Shot the Albatross"; last summer, the American Kris Delmhorst released "Strange Conversation," a CD based on poems by Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and others; and Deb Talan of The Weepies set an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem to music in 2001.

But Ms. Bruni may be the first bona fide pop star (her last album, 2003's "Quelqu'un M'a Dit," sold 2 million copies) to make an entire record out of great poems while barely changing a word other than to repeat lines as substitute-refrains.

"No Promises" will be released as an import on the Naïve label on February 4 (much of it can be heard for free at and, and in France and Germany it is expected to be a hit. Some of the interpretations are questionable, and Ms. Bruni's pronunciation, despite the coaching of British songstress Marianne Faithfull, is uneven, if charmingly so. A video in which Ms. Bruni, looking très supermodel, is driven around Paris as she sings another Dickinson poem, "If You Were Coming in the Fall," may be one of the more spectacular mismatches between word and image in the history of, well, music videos. On the other hand, the opening lines — "If you were coming in the fall / I'd brush the summer by / With half a smile and half a spurn / As housewives do a fly" — do sound unexpectedly rock 'n' roll.

To her credit, Ms. Bruni has been quite imaginative in her selections. She has also understood that much of the poetry we associate with the classroom is no more traditional than the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Pete Doherty of Babyshambles, and that there are potentially thousands of great English and American poems begging to be enmeshed in electric guitars and downloaded onto iPods. It's an idea that appeals to John Wesley Harding, the Brooklyn-based songwriter and novelist (under the name Wesley Stace).

"Songwriters need a break now and then, and I could see it as a refreshing way to write songs without worrying about what you're going to say in them, but still creating a meaningful album that you really liked," he said.

While there are lyricists, such as ex-Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus, whose words evoke the experimentalism of a contemporary poet like John Ashbery, most rock lyrics are closer to the 19th century, both in form and content. It's an odd but inescapable fact that rock music, the most revolutionary cultural force of the last 50 years, has kept the traditional virtues of rhyme and meter alive. (The same is true of rap.) Mr. Dylan once quoted a couplet by Shelley — "What is it you buy so dear / With your pain and with your fear?" — and noted that he might have written it himself, although Elvis Costello seems a likelier candidate.

"Up until a certain time, maybe in the 1920s, that's the way poetry was," Mr. Dylan once said, placing himself firmly within a pre-modernist tradition.

Reviewing a collection of essays about Mr. Dylan in the New Statesman in January 2003, the British novelist Will Self wrote, "It is not so much that Dylan's work dare aspire to the status of poetry; it is, quite simply, that along with work by a host of other inspired songwriters, it has completely replaced poetry, in that portion of the collective soul that requires the lyrical."

As if to prove the point, the magazine's cover story, "Gods and Guns," about the Anglican church's opposition to the invasion of Iraq, was prefaced by an anti-war quatrain from Mr. Dylan's "With God on Our Side."

Mr. Muldoon admits that, even if Mr. Self is overstating the case, song lyrics have taken up much of the "oxygen" previously reserved for poets. So let us concede that Ms. Bruni is not only doing something interesting, but potentially useful, too. Since the practice of making students memorize poetry went out of style in the 1960s, just as pop music became ascendant, perhaps pop can now breathe some life back into it. Listening to Ms. Bruni sing the gorgeously romantic opening stanza of "Lady Weeping at the Crossroads," one of two Auden poems on the record, it seems entirely possible:

Lady, weeping at the crossroads
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?

But does poetry, which creates its own internal music, require the services of a fashion modelturned-singer? Asked whether Ms. Bruni was guilty of trivializing the poet's texts, Edward Mendelson, a Columbia University professor and Auden's literary executor, replied that, on balance, he didn't think so, at least from what he could hear on her Web site.

"I do think that the less emphatic the music, the better it is for the poem," he said, noting the straightforward arrangements. "So maybe she's actually a better poem-setter than composers who write better music." ("Lady Weeping at the Crossroads" was originally set to music by Benjamin Britten.)

One of Ms. Bruni's most successful interpretations is of Dorothy Parker's "Afternoon," in which a woman nearing middle-age anticipates the day when, done with desire, she'll "draw her curtains to the town" and resign herself to having "memory to share my bed / and peace to share my fire." In her restrained way, Ms. Bruni approaches a more thrashing, 4/4, punkish arrangement. When she gets to the lines "And I'll forget the way of tears / And rock and stir my tea," she steps up the tempo sufficiently to make you forget that "rock" refers to a chair rather than dancing around a room.

Raised in France, Ms. Bruni is a brittle chanteuse at heart. But you can imagine any number of Anglo-Saxon female rockers tearing into it with gusto. Let's hope the trend continues, and a few more singers pick up the baton.



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