Tag Archives: music

“Poetry, Art, Music—and the Gift of Synesthesia” (an image essay in Talking Writing)

A couple of years ago, Talking Writing published some poems of mine from Looms, a manuscript that has recently been published by Shearsman Books.

Martha Nichols, one of the editors, recently approached me about writing an illustrated essay about what it’s like to work in three disciplines: poetry, collage, and music.

I invite you to have a look at the resulting featured spread in Talking Writing and to explore the rest of the issue, which will be added to during the next few weeks.

Click the image below to view my collages and essay:

Camille Martin

Om Kalsoum: A rare live recording of the Nightingale of Egypt

          Years ago a friend slipped me a cassette of a young Om Kalsoum recorded live in what sounds like a cafe full of spontaneously appreciative audience members.
          I’ve never heard Kalsoum sound so secular and sexy. The sound quality of the recording isn’t that great, but who cares? Her voice is youthful, sultry and exquisite.
          I made a cd of the cassette (about 38 minutes long) and managed to create a .wav file—it’s pretty large, but available for the downloading here:


          It grows in intensity, so it pays to listen to it to the end.



Camille Martin

Songs from Sonnets (glitch fixed)

I’ve been composing song settings for some of the poems in Sonnets and wanted to share some of the results here. Below are the audiofiles with scores that I uploaded to YouTube.

The program that I used for the score and audio is MuseScore. The sound quality isn’t terribly subtle, but it gives a general idea. The songs are scored for soprano with piano accompaniment.

Have a listen!






Camille Martin
Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010)

Musicality in Poetry

The continuation of this essay is the next post, “Barbara Guest’s Musicalities.”

1. “Tin” or “to die for”?

        It’s easy to say that some poetry is musical, and when we come across such poetry, we may quietly nod inside as though its musicality were a self-evident characteristic that need be acknowledged only on a barely conscious level. We say that a particular poet has a tin ear, whereas another has an ear to die for. We know when poetry sounds clunky and we know when we feel we’re hearing a string quartet in words. What gives poetry (or any other text, for that matter) the quality of musicality?
        I suspect that what people mean most often is musicality on the close-range level of the poem: the timbre and rhythm. Timbre in music refers to the configuration of sound waves and overtone series that produces the difference between, say, a clarinet and a violin. One way to think of that trait in terms of poetry is on the microcosmic level of the phoneme: the particular combination of consonant and vowel sounds that create a range of sounds from the colourful to the monochromatic, or to stick with the musical model, from the richness of sounds in a Stravinsky orchestra to the relative sameness of, say, Philip Glass’s compositions for saxophone quartet. Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, whether obvious or subtle, can add richness to the sound and layers to the meaning of poetry. Kenneth Burke’s “On Musicality in Verse” offers a detailed analysis of this microcosmic manifestation of musicality in poetry.
        I think of metre or rhythm as occurring in the foreground of composition, like timbre and melody. It’s not only ritualistic or condensed poetic language that exhibits musical rhythm; ordinary conversation can be extraordinarily musical. For example, Frank O’Hara gives us the rhythm of drama, tempestuous or quiet, in his rants and chats.
        We also call some poetry “musical” in the sense of “painterly”—words used as colours and texture painted onto a canvas, arranged in such a way to give aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. Narrative, descriptive and representational coherence take a backseat to the play of forms: juxtapositions, repeated motifs, and layers of signification whose meaning derives from the relatively abstract play of images and sounds.
        Yet another sense of musicality is the one that we mean when we speak of James Joyce’s famous fugue in prose in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses. The voices of the fugue are translated into voices of characters, and the repetition of fugal melodies are represented by subject matter or rhetorical mode (description, for example). Similarly, once could make a case for the abrupt changes in perspective and style in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting corresponding with the abrupt rondo-like changes in some compositions by Janacek, who was the teacher of Kundera’s musicologist father. Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style might be considered as a theme and variations.
        Correspondences between the arts, of course, are not precise but suggestive. Polyphony, for example, can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by the characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Ulysses (Zimmerman 108-13).

2. Pater’s condition of (instrumental) music

        With all of these manifestations of musicality in poetry comes an emphasis on the material and materiality of language—its sounds, its formal play, and its patchwork play of motifs and connotations. This emphasis brings to mind Walter Pater’s statement almost fifty years earlier than the writing of Ulysses: “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Despite the absolutism of such a sweeping statement in its assertion of the aesthetic primacy of music and musicality as the ideal toward which all art aspires, it does suggest some possibilities for correspondences between music and literature in a way that moves away from mimetic concerns toward an appreciation for formal play. Patricia Herzog speculates that the ideal state of music that Pater champions as the Parnassus of the arts is not vocal music or a gesamtkunstwerk such as opera but rather instrumental or chamber music:

               Absolute music would be ideally suited to exemplify
               Pater’s thesis since it contains nothing extraneous to
               the medium of music itself, a medium consisting
               solely of tonally moving forms arranged melodically,
               harmonically and rhythmically. The form and the
               content of absolute music would thus appear to be
               identical. (Herzog 125)

        Herzog states that Pater’s musical ideas consisted of “”the obliteration of the distinction between matter and form” and the embracing of “imaginative reason” over the “senses and the intellect operat[ing] in isolation” (126). In other words, art’s goal is “pure perception,” and to achieve that ideal state, it must abdicate “its responsibilities to its subject or material” (127). For Pater, matter and form should be “so welded together” that the intellect is not the only faculty stimulated by the content, and the senses not the only faculties stimulated by the form. Instead, the blending of form and matter should “present one single effect to the ‘imaginative reason,’ that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol.”
        Herzog stresses that the experience of such musicality in art is more aesthetic than logical, since “music’s ideal content is perceived entirely and only through its own, tonally moving forms.” Whereas the literary and visual arts (of Pater’s time) are dependent upon mimetic representation, music’s meaning is revealed through “aesthetic self-sufficiency” (130).
        The distinction that Herzog makes between the aesthetic and the logical in musical content isn’t clear, since music’s “tonally moving forms” can possess their own kind of logical interplay. However, what I find most interesting about Herzog’s fleshing out of Pater’s aphoristic championing of music is the movement, in the concern with musicality in poetry, away from mimetic concerns to language’s drawing attention to itself as a medium: words as musical motifs or brushstrokes. The musical analogy, to my mind, offers more complex possibilities than painting (but this could be simply because music was my first discipline): just as a motif can be varied (inverted, embellished, rhythmically augmented, and so forth), so can a word be varied by context, connotations, and so forth.
        And one of the poets who, it seems to me, best exemplifies this kind of musicality is Barbara Guest. If I can get my act together to continue this thread, I’d like to take a close look at one of Guest’s poems as if it were a musical composition (despite the limitations inherent in that kind of analogy).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “On Musicality in Verse.” Poetry 57 (1940): 31-40.

Herzog, Patricia. “The Condition to Which All Art Aspires: Reflections on Pater on Music.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36.2 (1996): 122-134.

Zimmerman, Nadya. “Musical Form as Narrator: The Fugue of the Sirens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 26.1 (2002): 108-118.

Camille Martin

Majlis Multidisciplinary Arts: “Figure of Speech” concert photos

Here are some photos of our multidisciplinary concert
on Saturday, August 29. The performers, in order of
appearance in the photos:


Hallie Fishel-Verrette
John Edwards

Camille Martin
Gauri Vanarase


For my musings on the collaborative experience, please see
yesterday’s post.


Hallie and John performing their setting of “this is the tune
that paper sang” (one of my “nursery rhyme” sonnets, based on
“This is the house that Jack built”):

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

<font face="Times New Roman" size="+.5" color="#302226">Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie</font>

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


My solo reading:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Hallie and I performing a “shadowing” setting of
“if you are somewhere.” I read and Hallie “shadowed”
me by singing the same words:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Gauri performing “Folia d’Italiana,” accompanied by
Hallie and John on guitars:

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Hallie, John, and I performing “Does It Take” (Gauri also
performed in this piece). Hallie hummed and John played
guitar while I read, and Hallie sang the last part of the poem;
Gauri performed a haunting interpretation of the poem:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Gauri performing “Folia d’españa”:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Curtain call with Gauri’s red ribbon and heart balloon:

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie


Mingmar, multidisciplinary muse:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie



Camille Martin

The Majlis Collaborative Experience

The Majlis “Figure of Speech” multidisciplinary experience was intense and rewarding. Tricia Postle, the organizer of the series, selected the members of our motley crew, which consisted of Gauri Vanarase, a kathak/modern dancer; Hallie Fishel-Verrette, a soprano and Baroque guitarist; John Edwards, also a Baroque guitarist; and myself, a far left field experimental poet. The point of such groupings is to throw together people from various disciplines and see what emerges from their collaboration. They gather for a series of rehearsals and then perform a concert on two evenings. Although some of the collaborations are expected to be designed as structured improvisations, our group, according to Tricia, was one of the most rehearsed ones.

The performance facility was rustic but warm. Tricia converted what I think used to be a woodworking factory into a performance area. She opened up one side of the building to create a stage, and stretched a large canvas from the roof to a nearby fence to cover the outdoors seating area. It was a nice surprise to find, just down the path between the stage and the restroom, a peach tree full of large ripe peaches.

In rehearsals I worked mostly with Hallie and John, who make up the Renaissance/Baroque duo The Musicians in Ordinary. To get things started before the first rehearsal, I emailed Hallie and John several of my poems that I thought would work well set to music: sonnets inspired by nursery rhymes and my “Poor Souls” sonnet series. I tried to select poems that were based on repetitions of various kinds or at least phrases of a fairly uniform length. And John emailed me samples of some Baroque styles that might work well for turning my poems into songs. At our first rehearsal, Hallie and John had already worked out several song settings of some of my poems and ended up performing five at the concert: “sixpence,” “if all the seas,” and “this is the tune,” “poor souls 1” and “poor souls 3.”

The blend of the poems and Baroque settings with a continuo-type guitar part worked out well. The continuo guitar part provided the structure of a repeated harmonic progression, which is very typical of Baroque composition. John’s repeated harmony gave the composition coherence and also provided opportunities for Hallie to improvise embellishments on the melody based on that harmony.

After that first rehearsal, I remembered having set a Dylan Thomas poem, “We lying by seasand,” to a capella soprano a long time ago, longer than I’d like to admit, as a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music. So I downloaded a music notation program and wrote the melody as best I could remember it. I thought, ok, I wrote this, maybe I can set some of my poems to music.

I knew that for the Majlis concert it would be good to have some pieces that I could perform with Hallie and John in various combinations, so I wrote a “shadowing” piece to perform with Hallie, based on my poem “if you are somewhere.” I’d speak a phrase or sentence, and a half a second later, Hallie would shadow my spoken words with the same words sung to a melody that I had composed. I’d seen this kind of collaboration improvised at a poetry reading in New Orleans to great effect. In performance, it worked out beautifully between Hallie and me.

Hallie and I also performed an “echo” piece based on my double sonnet “where you are when you,” which consists of a series of—I can’t believe I still remember the rhetorical term—aposiopeses, sentences that break off mid-stream. I’d start one phrase and a half-second later, Hallie would echo the same phrase. After we got the hang of the rhythm of the echo effect and the breaking off of the incomplete sentences so that they seemed to end suspended in mid-air, the echoing was very effective in performance.

I composed another collaborative piece in which John accompanied Hallie, who hummed a melody in a series of four-bar phrases. During each four bars, I spoke a sentence or phrase of my sonnet “does it take.” Hallie sang the last two lines of the poem. For the performance, Gauri joined this piece and improvised movements that beautifully expressed the sad nostalgia of the poem.

I wrote three song settings of my poems for Hallie and John to perform: “sometimes i write about cats,” “comatose in paradise,” and “dear perpetrator,” of which they performed the first two for the concert. I had never written for guitar, so there was some guesswork in my notation, but John gamely arranged them for his instrument. It was very moving to hear these songs performed—I got to experience what composers must feel like hearing their works in concert. In performance, the realization of the songs was better than I had imagined them in my mind’s ear as I was writing them. I felt as though I’d returned to an old friend, music, after my piano playing had lain fallow for so many years.

Gauri based one of her dances, which we nicknamed “the hat dance,” on a poem that has a line about putting a new ribbon on a hat. She attached a long red ribbon to a hat and used it to great effect in her dance, which seemed to address the inner conflict and restlessness of the speaker of the poem. The photos that I will soon post show some of the highlights of her choreography.

This collaborative experience allowed me to perform with others, which added one or more layers to what I normally do in a solo reading. But it’s more than just adding layers—it is learning to listen carefully to the phrasing, articulation, inflection, and tone of others to try to mesh your own part with something that is larger than just the sum of the two or three layers of the collaboration: the spoken, the sung, and the strummed. The players become a single creature that just happens to have three voices. And when Gauri joined Hallie, John, and me in “does it take,” it was apparent that she was very aware of what was being spoken and sung so that her improvisation would harmonize with the sounds of the others in the group

The collaboration sounded very classical and traditional in its realization, nothing, for example, like a performance of poet Bruce Andrews and dancer Sally Silvers. In the beginning I had tried to get a little avant-garde action going, but in reality, the collaboration needed to grow from the strengths of each person, and part of the process is finding out what those strengths are and how willing each person is to try things that lie a little beyond their usual practice. At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about setting my poems to Baroque music, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal, on hearing Hallie and John’s rendition of two of my sonnets, to find that the blend sounded natural, even inevitable. I’m delighted that Tricia brought the members of our group together, and I couldn’t be happier with the results of our collaboration, which stretched my usual practice at poetry readings and pushed me to take risks and try new approaches to making poetry happen.

Soon I’ll post some photos from the concert, taken by Cameron Ogilvie, and Tricia will post video clips from last night’s performance, for which I’ll provide the link.

Camille Martin

Majlis Multidisciplinary Arts: Figure of Speech




What do you get when you cross edgy poetry with Renaissance music? Find out at “Figure of Speech,” a collaborative performance of poetry, dance, and music.

I’m incredibly honoured to be performing with Gauri Vanarese, a dancer, and John Edwards and Hallie Fishel-Verrette, musicians in the Renaissance and Baroque music duo, The Musicians in Ordinary, in an evening of artistic collaboration organized by Tricia Postle.

Hallie and John have composed settings for several of my sonnets, using traditional musical forms of the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of these sonnets were inspired by English nursery rhymes, and when I heard Hallie and John perform them at a recent rehearsal, the poetry and music sounded to my ears like a perfect blend.

And for the occasion I also set several of my poems to music, which John, Hallie, and I will perform in various combinations.

In addition, Hallie and John will accompany dancer Gauri Vanarese in two of her beautiful and evocative choreographed pieces.

It will be a memorable evening. Please come!



Camille Martin

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.

Camille Martin