Right now, I’m particularly interested in poetry intersections. I like to take things – things in my house, things on my commute, things I listen to and things I watch – and ask myself not “How can I make a poem about that?” but “How can I make that a poem?” What would it look like if pill bottles were poems? What about subway tickets? What if I turned my Outlook meeting calendar into a poem?
I recently worked with composer Patrick Greene on Year of Glad, a song cycle featuring lyrics from my Erasing Infinite project, and have been thinking a lot about poetry and music. What are the different ways we can translate poetry into music? What would music look like as a poem? Let’s find out.
Step One: Find a Source Text
Start by choosing a source text. I recommend working with an e-text from a site like Project Gutenberg, but you can go old school if you’re willing to put in the time. Choose a selection of this text to work with. A few chapters or 8-10,000 words should suffice.
Step Two: Excerpt All of the Words Starting with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
There are a number of tools available online that can help you with this task. Hop on over to Applied Poetics, then copy and paste your source text into the editor. Under the Oulipian menu, pick “Tautogram,” choose the letter “A” from the dropdown, and click “run” to condense your text to all of the words that start with A. Repeat for letters B, C, D, E, F and G to build your word bank.
Step Three: Craft a Poem
Using only the words from your word bank (those starting with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G), craft your poem.
Step Four: Translate the Words of Your Poem Into Notes
Did you notice something about those seven letters your words start with? They correspond to the musical notes on a scale. The first part is simple: the first letter of each word indicates your note. For instance:
- Example Poem Line: “Boy, bring an apple and daringly eat a few bites.”
- Corresponding Notes: B, B, A, A, A, D, E, A, F, B
Now that we know what our notes are, we need to determine their length. We’ll do this by counting the syllables of each word:
- 1 syllable = 1 beat = quarter note
- 2 syllables = 2 beat = half note
- 3 syllables = 3 beats = dotted half note
- 4 syllables = 4 beats = whole note
Here’s what they look like as notes:
So, returning to our example phrase above, we would this have
B (quarter note), B (quarter note), A (quarter note), A (half note), A (quarter note), D (dotted half note), E (quarter note), A (quarter note), F (quarter note), B (quarter note)
Step Five: Plot Your Notes on a Musical Scale
Visit https://flat.io and create a free account. Create a new score and choose piano as your instrument. Keep the time in the default 4/4.
Use the tool to plot your notes on the scale (focus only on the top scale for this exercise). If you’re new to reading music, here’s a basic chart you can follow:
Going back to our example, when we plot these notes on the musical chart using Flat.io, we get:
Which, when played, translates into the following. I’m not about win any Grammys, but it gives you a sense of how a single poetic line can be translated into music.
If you know a little bit about reading and writing music, feel free to play around with the tool. For instance, perhaps you want to add rests into the score where there are line breaks, or fill in the bass line.
Be sure to share your poems and links to your corresponding musical compositions in the links section below – I look forward to seeing what you come up with!
Jenni B. Baker is a poet and editor based in Bethesda, MD. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review, a literary journal that publishes experimental forms of poetry including found, erasure, constraint-based and conceptual pieces. In her multi-year project, Erasing Infinite, she creates poems via erasure from David Foster Wallace’s 1,076-page text, Infinite Jest, one page at a time. Her chapbook, Comings / Goings, a collection of poems generated by applying Oulipian constrained writing techniques to Washington Post articles, was released in 2015. Her poetry has been featured in journals such as DIAGRAM, BOAAT, Quarterly West, Washington Square, and Lunch Ticket. For more information, stop by her website or follow her on Twitter.