by Jim Clark
Jim Clark is the Elizabeth H. Jordan Professor of Southern Literature and Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. “My True-Love” is a poem by Byron Herbert Reece set to music composed by Jim Clark. “Saying Goodbye” is an original poem composed and recited by Jim Clark.
Interviewer: What initially motivated your decision to add musical accompaniment to the poetic line and do you believe this alters or changes the original rhythm of the verse? Because the verse in “My True-Love” was already written did it hold more influence over the shape of the melody, versus a song where the lyrics and melody can adjust to one another more symbiotically?
Clark: In regard to the whole project of setting Byron Herbert Reece’s poems to music which culminated in the CD The Service of Song, the initial motivation was a question from my friend and former colleague at the University of Georgia, poet Coleman Barks. On behalf of someone else, he was looking for musical settings of Reece’s poems, and asked me if I had ever set any of them to music. That set me to wondering why I had not, so I tried one, and ultimately ended up with twelve. Now, regarding this specific poem, “My True-Love,” the musical accompaniment was inspired by what seemed to me the overall “Renaissance” feel of the poem. Of course the phrase “my true-love” is often found in Renaissance poems, and the imagery in the early lines of the poem also seems straight out of the Renaissance sonneteer’s repertoire. In fact, when my co-producer Phil Valera first heard my crude demo of this song, he remarked, “I hear recorders.” We did ultimately end up with John Wright’s duet recorders on the track as a dominant motif, as well as Terry Phillips’ “lute-like” lead guitar figures, my autoharp (standing in for a harpsichord, I think), and an acoustic bass. However, the imagery later in the poem takes on a more modern and conflicted cast. Ultimately, the poem reminds me somewhat of a Leonard Cohen lyric, or perhaps even of the poem “Love Song: I and Thou,” by Alan Dugan, which similarly ends with a metaphor of crucifixion. Katy Adams’ high, “angelic” harmonies were inspired by the production on some of Leonard Cohen’s songs. It initially concerned me that there are only two chords in the whole song – D minor and C – and that there are only verses and no chorus. I was afraid that might be too repetitive, too static. But my general practice in setting Reece’s poems to music was to trust my instinct, and then get feedback from professional musicians whose opinions I valued later. In most cases, my instincts proved trustworthy. I personally think this poem represents a successful wedding of words and musical arrangement. The music to me seems very much in keeping with the rhythm and the tenor of the words. Most of Reece’s poems are metrically formal, and I think that helped a lot. My feeling during the process of composing the music was often that the music seemed to be already embedded, or latent, within the poem; I just teased it out. So yes, I’d say that the pre-existing text shaped the melody considerably.
Interviewer: It seems in some ways that the difference between poetry and song could be one of presentation. Does this sound like an accurate assertion? Is it possible to distill what is the most common through line of a song versus a poem in regard to what makes them unique art forms?
Clark: As someone who is both a poet and a musician, I’ve thought about this a lot. I do think the presentation is an important, perhaps a crucial, element. Poems are written so that they contain and make their own verbal music. They are typically not written, in most cases, with an eye toward being set to actual music at some point. Songs, on the other hand, are definitely written with music in mind. In most cases, I think it’s useful to maintain a distinction between song lyrics and poems, though it’s fairly common to treat certain serious songwriters’ lyrics as poems in anthologies and in classrooms these days. Usually, though, when you take away the music of a song and just regard the lyrics, it’s clear that something is missing. The lyrics by themselves are simply not as powerful or as aesthetically pleasing as the lyrics when heard in conjunction with the music. It’s a tricky business, making such distinctions, but for example I consider Leonard Cohen a poet, even though most people think of him as a songwriter, whereas I tend not to think of Paul Simon, as marvelous a songwriter as he is, as a poet. People always ask about Bob Dylan, whose music and words I love. About him, I suppose I’d say I do think of him, in some ways, as a sort of “post Beat” poet, as well as a songwriter. Back to Reece’s poems, when I was trying to decide which poems of his to set to music, some of them, both lyrics and ballads, seemed to offer themselves as very clear and obvious candidates, while others, just as clearly, seemed inappropriate or unworkable. I think even those poems probably could have been set to music, in a clever “musical theatre” or “art song” sort of style, but not as organic folk songs, which is what I was looking to do. So I suppose musical genre, or style, factors into the equation, too. I have also heard musical settings of poems about which I’ve said to myself, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t think it works.” —Rebecca Bernard
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