Love Poems You Wish You Had Written #2: The Highwayman

The Highwayman, Illustration by Charles Keeping

The Highwayman, Ill. by Charles Keeping

I had the immense pleasure Sunday morning of reading a second time at the Priestly Chapel here in the tiny town of Northumberland, Pennsylvania. But I will tell you about that experience in my next post. For now, I want to skip ahead to talk about the next Poetry Under the Paintings event at Faustina’s Gallery in Lewisburg this coming Thursday, the seventh, and to share with you a poem by Alfred Noyes that I cannot stop singing. Yes. You heard me, a poem I cannot stop singing.

It’s interesting living with a musician. A poet and a musician together in the same house, loving and appreciating each other’s work, each deferring to the other as the expert in his field, while trying to give appropriate feedback when asked. Brian will be writing a new song and just lost in his world there across the room on his keyboard, while I am here typing on my laptop. And as much as I love listening to him play, I know that I need to almost tune him out in order to get my own work done.

That’s when he’ll stop playing, turn to me and say, “What did you think of that? Did you like it?” Of course, I have to ask him to play it again, because all the while he was playing I was fussing over the right word for that feeling of helplessness and anger when your brother is trying to teach you to swim but is actually in the process of drowning you.

So I say, “Huh? I didn’t recognize the song.”

“That’s because I wrote it. I’ve never played it for anyone before.” Talk about missing an opportunity! So I ask him to please play it again. It’s truly lovely living with a musician.

When it comes to song lyrics, I start puffing out my chest as if we are in my territory of expertise. But I need to remind myself that Brian is damn good with words also, and that the song is in fact a song, not a poem. And so if “Baby, baby, baby, ooooh baby” actually does fit the emotion, the lift and drive of the music then I should just let it go and not impose judgment on the song’s lyrical lameness.

He already knows well that my poems do not have to rhyme in a traditional, rhythmical sense, and he just lets them be what they are. Having said that, he does have a great sense of rhythm, and an ear for the subtle things my poems do that even I don’t always notice at first. And so in critique he can give me valuable feedback on whether or not a certain line or phrase is living up to what the rest of the poem is trying to be.

Sophie and Alex struggle with their song.

Sophie and Alex struggle with their song. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly it is a problem for me when I feel the lyrics of a song seem to stray from the intention of the music. If the intensity of the music does not match the weight of the lyric I feel put off.

For instance, I still contend that as marvelous and untouchable as Whitney Houston’s credentials are, the crescendos throughout most of her song “All at Once” feel out of touch with the lyrics. To hear her sing it I get this bizarre notion that what has really upset her most is not that her man left her, but that he did it suddenly, “Ah-all at once!” I would think that good writers would have picked up on that, but then again, maybe there were just out to showcase an amazing voice and to hell with the words? Maybe.

However, when it all comes off, when the key is right, when the lyrics match the tempo, it’s amazing and satisfying on every level, as when Houston sings Dolly Parton’s  song, “I Will Always Love You.” Then again, there is probably more than one reader who disagrees with me on that.

Now, song lyrics are not the same as poetry, in that they are different appendages of the same organism, meaning that the music and the lyrics are two legs, and one will tend to limp along in the absence of the other. Poetry, on the other hand, even if consciously metered must stand up by its own power. A while back Jenny Hendrix from the New Yorker defended Billy Collins’ claim that, “Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music.” The article is two years old but still worth reading. “Ask a musician what he or she first hear in a song and the answer is never the words.” Hendrix goes on to say that, “even for those of us who are more literary-minded, seeing lyrics written on a page often diminishes whatever pleasure they gave when embedded in the context of a song.”

Conversely the music can often be just lovely in and of itself, so maybe the words are less important than the melody. And yet, if you know the song, you just cannot stop yourself from singing the words in your head while hearing the instrumental version in the elevator.

In any case when they are presented together, music and lyrics really should compliment each other. This is why you don’t hear happy songs generally sung in a minor key, unless the artist is going for irony, or unless you are Paige Miles from season nine of American Idol, and unable to sort out Charlie Chaplin‘s emotional intentions for his piece, “Smile.” It’s a subtle art, making the key, the pitch, the whole shebang (technical musical term there) fit the words.

Image source unknown

Image source unknown

Having said all of that, there are lyrics that, if read apart from the song without prior knowledge of a melody, truly could stand up on their own. And there are artists who bridge multiple art forms by blending poetry and music together. In fact many have made the argument that poetry first began as song. And though Ned Rorem seems to disagree with that theory, composers like him have made a living out of putting poetry to music.

And that brings us back to Love Poems You Wish You’d Written, and to “The Highwayman,” by Alfred Noyes. A local friend named Shelly has asked me via email to read this tragic love poem in her stead for the February, Valentine’s edition of Poetry Under the Paintings. And this happens to be a poem (minus a few words) that Loreena McKennitt has gorgeously set to music. It has a very Alfred, Lord Tennyson feel to it, which is probably, having heard McKennitt’s musical rendition of “Lady of Shallot,” why I first mistook the Alfred’s to be the same poet.

And it so happens, that my beloved musician Brian just adores Loreena McKennitt, and already knows this song very well.  You can see the moon and the stars aligning here, right? So I might take a risk this Thursday night and actually sing for the first time in twenty years in front of people, other than Brian and my sons in the car. After all, I used to be a choir boy. I sang in ensembles and duets. I sang solo in performances and ceremonies of various kinds, including my own wedding. I even directed a small church choir for a while, not because I was the best suited for it, but because nobody else wanted the job, and I enjoyed it. But boy, that was a long time ago.

This weekend Brian asked me to launch into it with him on the keyboard, but I said I wasn’t sure if I was up to it. “The quickest way to learn is to do it,” he said, “It’ll be awful, but it will be fun.” And so we dove in, and I was surprised how well it went. I am definitely out of practice, and I need to watch my timing, but it was breathtakingly fun. So I might, if I am brave enough and we have enough time to practice, just sing instead of read “The Highwayman.”

It’s about honoring the poem and the song, not about me. PUP is an intimate and forgiving group, and besides the music might just be the crutch I need to get through the poem’s eleven stanzas! And when it comes right down to it, I can sing the words, but I’m just not sure that in this day and age I can say, “His pistol butts a-twinkle,” while keeping a straight face.

Loreena McKennitt leaves out one verse that I think is very important to the poem, the one about Tim the ostler (basically the stable man), yet it somehow is alluded to by the intensity of the musical interlude in its place, and the general idea is assumed; someone was a rat. And I think that wisely she leaves out Noyes’ final stanza which is a repeat from early on. There is more tension where McKennitt chooses to end the song, and it says all it needs to.  I think Alfred might even approve. It goes to show that the best editing is done with a knife, rather than a pen.

Click here for the entire text of the original poem, and here for more illustrations from Charles Keeping. And now, enjoy Loreena performing her rendition of today’s Love Poem You Wish You Had Written, “The Highwayman.”

35 thoughts on “Love Poems You Wish You Had Written #2: The Highwayman

  1. Well I love the illustrations of Charles Keeping,but I am not so sure about the poem. I think it definitely requires a real log fire, a gloomy evening and someone with a fabulous voice reading it…..

    I am posting another today but I cannot compete with you for the lovely, human stories you post around these poems. And you are right – there are people out there who will disagree with you about Whitney Houston. She can’t touch Dolly Parton’s original version of I will Always Love you. You can really feel the truth in Dolly’s voice on that song.

    This has been a really interesting series to work on alongside you. Thank you!

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    • It’s kinda cute. I remember you saying that before about Dolly’s version, but I kept my mouth shut. :-x tee hee. I wish I could find the quote, but unless I am wrong, and I could be, Dolly herself actually handed over the rights to that song to Whitney, saying she had the better voice for it. And I do like Dolly’s voice. It’s sweet and sincere, but it doesn’t give me goosebumps of despair at lost love like Houston’s does. And it’s kinda funny that this is our first real disagreement. :)

      The poem, yes it requires a very compelling voice. I don’t think I’m the one for this one, but since it was requested, and there is this musical crutch, as I called it, I might just give it a shot.

      Thanks for the compliments on the human back-story. I was really afraid that I might have been a bit to all-across-the-map on this one.

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    • And I should say, that part of the fun of reading this at Valentine’s season is that it goes completely against what everyone expects of a love poem. Extremely grim! And I am really enjoying this series with you as well. I can’t wait to see your next edition!

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  2. The songwriter conundrum — poet vs. lyricist — is one of my favorite musings. What a blessing for each of you to have a partner who can understand, appreciate, value, and explore one another’s particular creativity.

    P.S. Love the background picture.

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    • Yes, people are not programmed to sit for that long these days. That’s another reason for the musical version. And I must have been taught this poem in school, but maybe I wasn’t paying attention, because I only remembered it vaguely.

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    • I cannot imagine. :) In any case I think we have decided that the first time in two decades that I sing in front of more than my children or my shower nozzle it should not be a ten minute song. It’s fun to sing, but for one out of practice, it’s also exhausting. I think what we will stick with is sort of a dramatic reading in time with Brian’s music on the keyboard.

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  3. Incredible post! I am enjoying following this series of yours, with the great title of Poems You Wish You Had Written, and this one is especially a favorite with the addition of the lovely Lorenna McKennit. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it. The reading went well, with Brian playing the music while I read (not sang) the poem. The group seemed to really be hanging on every word, and Loreena’s music held the tension perfectly.

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  4. Have known this song for years, and loved it. I also originally credited Tennyson with The Highwayman, until I went looking for the text of the poem a couple of years ago.

    Have you ever noticed the impressive overlap of love stories with ghost stories?

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    • Lucky for me, Brian knew it too. It was so much fun to read it in that little gallery (you’ve been there!) to Brian’s keyboard accompaniment.

      I too thought it was by Tennyson at first, such a similarity of pattern to the Lady of Shallot. As Ann said it’s amazing how many of these old stories end with the woman dying. At least in this one there was equal time because he was offed too. Small consolation I suppose.

      Anyway, yes, eternal love, ghost stories. Another way for us to make ourselves believe our love lasts beyond our time here in this life? Is this from our longing to immortalize our love, or is it part of our desire to cover up our miserable mistakes on earth, because, hey if we screw this up, there’s always the afterlife, or the next life? This idea in itself could be an interesting research/ opinion essay.

      God, I cannot wait until we can have these talks over a real after hours drink in person!

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    • I think there’s a strong tendency to eternize love–cf Shakespeare’s sonnets (I’ve had the line When I perhaps compounded am with clay stuck in my head for three days now). I think that it’s also a bit of hope; things didn’t turn out so well for Bess and her guy, but maybe there’s something better for them after all? We can imagine that they will never get old or tired of each other, that this first flush of excitement will never wear off, that someone really can feel this way about someone else forever.

      In critical circles, The Lady of Shallott’s Lancelot gets quite a beating–I always feel sorry for him, because nothing that happens in the poem is his fault. If it hadn’t been him, someone else would have flashed his brazen greaves in her warped mirror and she would end up just as dead. I’m a bit more concerned with where this curse came from, and why–those questions Tennyson doesn’t answer.

      Just to warn you, though… I come across vaguely articulate online because I revise constantly. Even portions of a comment like this (including this very sentence) have been rewritten a few times. When you meet me in person, you’ll have to be patient if I sputter a bit, and take a long time to answer, and often I answer stupidly first and come up with a better answer after the conversation has moved on.

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    • Oh, I probably backspace and rewrite as often as you! Even after extensive editing, I still find myself missing typos after I hit that publish button. And the worst looking ones are those that make it obvious that I changed my mind about a sentence’s structure, but forgot to about deleting all the right words. ;-) (Get it?)

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    • :D I do.

      Hey, what are the copyright concerns about posting an original reading of someone else’s material on youtube?

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    • Well, now that’s an area of I have been delving into. For the most part, poets don’t seem to worry too much over giving permissions, because after all it’s a bit of free press. I get the idea that some of it falls under fair use, or “brief reviews” clauses, but I am not sure. I don’t make any money from those videos. I’m not a YouTube partner, but that of course doesn’t make it all clear and clean. http://YouTube.com/spokenverse is an extremely popular channel. Even Roger Ebert gives Tom a lot of press, but I am pretty sure he doesn’t cover his copyright bases. Since Tom talks to me from time to time over YouTube messages, I have been thinking of asking some advice from him on this very subject.
      All in all, it probably depends. I think of it like doing musical covers.

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    • I’m wondering about this, because I recorded myself reading a novel during that week-long break from school in January. I’m planning to upload it when I have home internet, but I don’t want to suffer the wrath of Viking.

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    • Alex Day, who goes by the YouTube screen name of Nerimon had a gig of reading segments of the Twilight books on his channel for the purpose of making fun of them. I guess that falls under different circumstances though.

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    • Yeah… author’s been dead for decades. I was going to operate on the “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” principle, but thought I’d ask since you have some experience posting readings of copyrighted material.

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    • Yes, a practice that has made me nervous more and more lately, but which Tom, pseudonym “Tom O’Bedlam” does without worry apparently. It might be because he’s not using his real name. :-/ I get permission sometimes, but. . .

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    • About seven times these last two weeks I’ve intended to sit down and reply to Tom’s last message, but I’ve wanted to have the time to get my thoughts in order and give it the time it deserves. I shall let you know what I find out.

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  5. How did I miss this? I actually cried over that song. Beautiful. The Highwayman is one of the poems I memorized back in the day when I had a brain and more than two good cells to rub together. As for your story, all I can say is — the father and son who write together are right together — even if in different rooms and on different wave lengths. I’m going to send this to a lady I’ve become friends with through my blog. She’s a musician and used to work for RCA. I know she’ll love it.

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