Dead poets calliope

What writer worth their Whitman doesn’t have a vast store of quotable knowledge or appreciation of the great poets of literature? Well, this lazy bard, for one. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some E. A. Poe, a little E. Dickinson, and the wacky dude who never had a shift key on his typewriter (e. e. cummings).  But I am woefully ignorant in all our richest rhymes, and without good reason or worthy excuse. I have the collected works of Yeats, Walt Whitman and the Oxford Book of Poetry on my shelves, but the only living things nibbling on them recently (or peeing on them) are cockroaches which must somehow be addicted to the old glue they used in the book bindings.

Which in no way segues me to Natalie Merchant’s new musical opus, Leave Your Sleep, featuring the whimsical or wizening works of a couple dozen formerly breathing poets now set to her voice and music. Just hearing about this project made me depressed and longing for the days when Merchant’s overly somber lyrics were magically lifted by the chirpy guitar playing she was straddled to in her former band 10,000 Maniacs. Left to her own production choices, it seems like she’s been on a downer ever since. Imagine my surprise when I listened to this lovely journey through dusty tomes from the crypt only to be charmed every note of the way. That’s right; the melancholy woman who once improbably rhymed ‘four poster’ with ‘dull torpor’ has been vividly inspired and revived by the dead and the decayed.

Every style of music noodles its way up from these poems and through your ears; from Chinese strings to Celtic pipes, reggae rhythms to orchestral swells, Irish jigs to New Orleans jazz, barroom blues to minute waltzes, and everything in between. And yet it all sounds so cohesively … apt and entertaining. The voice, so familiar, clear and committed, doesn’t hurt, either.  Read through the extensive liner notes and you discover she not only immersed herself in these poems, but into the very lives of the poets; including a mini-biography with every selection. This is what she felt she needed to do as an artist to choose or channel the right mood or melody for each poem. And throughout, she succeeds.

Charles Clausey. Rachel Field. Edward Lear. Mervyn Peak. Laurence Alma Tadema. Charles Edward Carryl. Arthur Macy. John Godfrey Saxe. William Brighty Rands. Eleanor Farjeon.  At some point in my lit-heavy Maryland education, I was probably exposed to some of these poets. Now, I’m ashamed to say, those could be the names of my city council members, for all I’m aware. Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings and Gerald Manley Hopkins still ring a bell, but don’t ask me to quote anything.

Merchant corrects any ignorance and makes us sit back and listen to voices long since silenced, but still eerily relevant. Here’s Gerald Manley Hopkins, who died of typhoid fever at age 45, writing a poem (to a youth named Margaret) to explain the unexplainable to a child.

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same

Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed;

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Try to get through Merchant’s achingly beautiful mediation on this ode to loss with a dry eye. I dare you.

— A. Wayne Carter


For no specific reason, here is Bill Murray reading Emily Dickinson to a group of construction workers.

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