Most of us, even the writers among us, don’t turn to the spoken word section of the record store on a regular basis. We buy music with hordes of instruments, overt rhythms, collar-bone thumping bass tones, and sing-along choruses to fill our daily commutes. We download what iTunes recommends and what we can hum in the elevator while our cell phone chimes in. In the world of music, where is the poetry?
What Kenneth Clarke, Executive Director of The Poetry Center of Chicago has proposed to do is show us exactly where lyrics meet music. ReVerse, a collection of poems, poem-songs, and spoken word was released in late 2004 and begins to show us exactly where words and rhythms have been all along, in poetry.
ReVerse is not simply a collection of poets reading their work into a microphone, though there are several tracks that have no physical musical accompaniment. The CD brings together 14 poets in order to present their work to our ears. In fact, you can’t read the poems spoken on ReVerse anywhere in the liner notes or on the collection’s website. At first, this seems an odd omission, perhaps a result of expensive copyright laws for print, but I think there’s a bigger issue at hand; that of bringing poetry back into its auditory state. Poetry is, after all, an oral tradition based in recitation and storytelling. It is the form of our oldest stories: “Beowulf,” “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey,” “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, Shakespeare’s plays, and on down the line. Now, poetry must often be defended and handed out in greeting card spoonfuls. ReVerse reminds us with its mere existence that poetry belongs between our ears and mouths as well as beneath our fingertips.
ReVerse brings a variety of both Chicago-born and -centered poets as well as national poetic figures together. There are dark poems of modern mythology such as Marvin Tate’s “Take Off Your Shoes (and Run)” with its oompah-like drum and accordion backup and Richard Fammeree’s “Green Man” full of sweeping choral voices. Li-Young Lee’s “Echo and Shadow” is a sweet poem describing a lover’s body and shadows with guitar and vocal background, while Simone Muench’s “Spectacle: Possession” repeats words such as electric, neck, woman, knife, and sing to draw a gruesome and beautiful portrait of color-stained action with absolute silence reverberating behind the poet’s voice. Kent Foreman’s poem “It’s About Time” rolls with a Beat and be-bop sensibility and Lawrence Ferlingetti’s “History of the Airplane” is dark and wonderful and heartbreaking and political throughout its three minutes. Alexi Murdoch’s “Song for You” is reminiscent of modern singer-songwriter solo work like Bright Eyes, because Murdoch is in fact a singer-songwriter, but one with, as ReVerse puts it, a “dedication to the artistic integrity of songwriting” and that truly points us back to the function of lyrics in songs. Music legend Lou Reed’s “The City and the Sea” is actually from a play titled “The Raven” which Reed wrote concerning Edgar Allen Poe, and is near haunting in its gritty volume nearly pounded into the microphone.
What ReVerse’s 14 poems are most, at their core, is a relationship between words and breath. You can hear this most distinctly in the a capella tracks where the poet is speaking and inhaling and exhaling into your ears. The poems backed by instrumentation remind us of the music of the language they compliment, and the rhythm of our own speech. These poets are here for you, their words for you, their voices for you. It is a fine thing to have a poet speaking in your ear; another to have words in your mouth and to tap your fingers to the rhythm of language as you walk to work, as you weave in and out of traffic, and as you make your way through your own lyric.