A while back I mentioned the small but significant part The Triffids’ song New Year’s Greetings played in getting me writing poetry seriously. Thinking back, music also played a role in several other ways.
For starters, like loads of other teenagers and twentysomethings, I was a bit of a frustrated song lyricist. Frustrated because (a) I have no aptitude for any musical instrument whatsoever; (b) I couldn’t insinuate myself into a band as a singer/lyricist as I can’t sing either; and (c) the lyrics were uniformly rubbish. But it did get me into the habit of writing, and at some point I must have picked up a book of poetry, remembered that I actually did like most of it at school, and realised that writing poetry might be a lot more fun than penning lyrics for bands that didn’t exist.
At about that time, Mark Radcliffe had a Radio One show, running from about 9pm-11pm on weekdays. I liked the music he played, plus once a week, he had at least one poet in the studio to read. It was often Simon Armitage or Ian McMillan (presumably because they could easily pop along the A62 to the Manchester studio), although I also remember John Hegley being on, and I’ve since read various poets saying that they also guested. The best thing about it was that the poets didn’t just read their own work (in fact, Hegley’s the only one whose poems I can definitely remember, although I do like the other two), which meant that I got exposed to all sorts of things I might never have otherwise heard. I started buying the odd anthology, to follow up on some of the poets featured.
Radcliffe deserves a massive pat on the back for his services to literature in exposing the nation’s indie kids to so much poetry (he also had an excellent novels slot, with Will Self), although he undid some of that good work recently with his own novel, Northern Sky.
Finally, there was a very specific music-poetry link. I’ve always been a Billy Bragg fan, and on the Bard of Barking’s 1996 album, the splendidly titled William Bloke, he set the Kipling poem A Pict Song to music. Now Bragg’s always had a soft spot for Kipling, which might sound strange given the popular perception of their respective politics. He echoed the poem Gentleman Rankers in his song Island Of No Return, and used the famous “what do they know of England” line in The Few. Coincidentally, at the same time as I was listening to all this, I was reading a book about Anglo-Saxon history which included a quote from Kipling’s Norman And Saxon, and it all encouraged me to go and buy a Kipling anthology. Three poems in particular – Lichtenberg (with its great first stanza and that "Ah Christ" line), Chant Pagan and the wonderful Bridge Guard In The Karroo – really grabbed me, and from there it was poetry all the way. It was still a good five or six years before I wrote a poem I felt happy enough about to send to a magazine, but I still enjoyed getting there.
Generally, I’d have to say I prefer lyrics that steer well clear of trying to be poetic. For that reason, I really ought to get the Warren Zevon album for which Paul Muldoon co-wrote a couple of songs – Zevon was a fine lyricist in his own right, without ever being remotely ‘poetic’, and I can’t help feeling that Muldoon’s involvement will somehow diminish that, but it'd be good to see whether that's the case.
On a totally different subject, last night I watched Bill Oddie Back In The USA. I was delighted to see he went to Florida’s Merritt Island and highlighted the plight of the Florida Scrub Jay. Great birds, like all jays. I’ve never met another Merritt in this country (outside my family, obviously!), but the USA seems to be full of them.