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Talks - Lyric Poetry: ‘Where words & Music Meet’

10th May 2009. Poetry-Next-the-Sea Festival 2009
Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk

Anthony Powers talks with writer and poet Irene Noel-Baker about his settings of poetry by Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Lawrence Durrell. They talk about their own collaboration and discuss the links between poetry and song, with regard to rhyme, rhythm, imagery and phrasing. With the participation of Michael Chance (alto) and James Boyd (guitar) they will illustrate their talk in words and music, including part of their own song cycle, Changing the Story.

Erotisis (question)
What is so special about music?
Is it knowing that there will be
A solution here, in this place?

Your question explains itself
In the slow, rhythmical unfolding
Of desire, each end a new beginning
As the wave turns to find
Solace in an acknowledgement of pain,
Dragging back from the shore.

If music is the desire for a question
Unfolding in simplicity,
Gentle as the search for intimacy,
Violent as the sea
Each wave another wave overcoming,

Then music will take you
Back to the beginning
Again and again,
With the knowledge that
There is an adequate response
Reclaiming all that was

Lost out of tired hands
Pilfered from busy minds
With the sound that lays down
In a question
The promise of its own reply.

"Lyric poetry is poetry that pertains to the lyre". It is meant to be sung, or it is characteristic of a song. "Now the name for short poems, usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet's own thoughts and sentiments". Ruskin describes lyric poetry as the expression by the poet of his own feelings. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes Byron: "From the high lyrical to the low rational".

Anthony has set Wittgenstein's Tractatus to music. I have taken Plato's dialogues and attempted, in my translations, to rescue the poetry that has been lost in the readings that regard his philosophy as strictly rational, as opposed to lyrical and poetic. I would like to argue that poetry is an essential part of philosophy, that philosophy and poetry conjoin - and by philosophy I mean a love and understanding of human nature. This is a hard argument to make, since the two domains have become very separate. But lyric poetry and its sister, song, for me exemplifies what is most complete in human expression. It creates an argument, a mood, complete in itself, drawing from a certain tone, a certain atmosphere, to build a perfect picture describing everything that pertains at that particular moment in time, including thought, emotion, sense. It is a perfect example of human expression. This is not to say that a particular song or poem attempts to express a lasting truth, in the logical sense, but it describes matters fully as they appear in that instant.

What lyric poetry may do is to urge the mind and heart on through the complexities of thought and emotion - it can unite and bring together unconscious ideas, resolving them or bringing them into sharp contrast in a single phrase, or a series of short phrases. Aided by the pulse and rhythm that bring us close to the body and to the heart, the phrasing that is at the centre of the lyric form, allows us to let everything extraneous fall away: each phrase is for that brief moment complete, not allowing anything excessive, nor anything superfluous. The movement of the voice to the end of the phrase, to the end of the poem or song, the release into silence. We are led onwards towards a conclusion, aided by repetition whether of rhythm or rhyme, moving always forward to a certain end, perfect in its resolution: first the building of phrase upon phrase, then the ease of its relinquishing, whether into melancholy, bitterness or joy.

Irene Noel-Baker

Poetry-Next-the-Sea Festival, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk
Anthony Powers
Michael Chance
James Boyd
Song cycle Changing the Story

© Irene Noel-Baker (2022)