Music to my ears

This week we went to a music quiz at our local pub and what it reminded me – besides the fact that I have pretty poor music knowledge despite rating it as one of my better subject areas – was how soul-joltingly amazing music can be.

I mean, generally I’m a words person. This will come as no surprise I’m sure. And there are certain bands – mostly the ones I grew up with – whose lyrics I know inside out and back to front. I followed my Mum’s habit of writing out lyrics so that I could sing along to whole albums. I mean, Smash Hits only supplied lyrics to the big singles!

But for the most part I listen to the music, not the words. I love to turn up the volume, lean my head back, close my eyes and let the music wash over me.

This means that (a) I’m not nearly as good at music quizzes as I’d like to be and (b) when playing Singstar I am constantly surprised at what the lyrics really are. It’s often a pleasant surprise because lyrics can be remarkably poetic. I leave you with some favourite examples:

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

(David Bowie)

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

(U2)

If life is an open book, she’d rather read the pictures for a while
Let the bastards moan
’cause where she falls, she falls

(Ooberman)

Dreams of sights, of sleigh rides in seasons
where feelings not reasons, can make you decide
as leaves pour down, splash autumn on gardens
as colder nights harden, their moonlit delights

(Lightning Seeds)

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power
Just like lungs sucking on air
Survival’s natural as sorrow

(Manic Street Preachers)

The most ancient words can have the strongest effect

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
by Sappho
translated by Aaron Poochigian

Sappho lived from 630 until 570 BCE on the island of Lesbos and has been renowned throughout the intervening centuries as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Sadly, little of her material has survived and what we do have is largely in fragments.

Sappho wrote about love, family, marriage and war with wit and warmth. Her poetry had a huge influence on writers for centuries after she lived. All of the major ancient Greek and Roman writers are name-checked in the notes.

In this new (2009) translation, Poochigian provides a thorough introduction as well as notes on each fragment. I have a tendency to ignore these bits when I pick up a classic book but in this case the background is extremely interesting…so I skimread it. I did find it useful to glance at the notes where fragments mentioned a name or were particularly short.

Poochigian has tried to follow the metre of the original work but has added rhyme where there was none previously to make the fragments more songlike. Because this is a translation, and from an obscure ancient dialect at that (one of the many reasons why so much of Sappho’s work has been lost) it is hard to know how close reading these fragments comes to the original experience of hearing them sung. Probably not that close, but they are still worth reading.

For me not all of the fragments work as poetry. For instance, the shortest fragment included in this collection is the four words “A handkerchief / Dripping with…“, which has an intriguing air of mystery about it but hardly counts as a poem. However, the longer fragments (and indeed the two complete poems) are beautiful and emphasise what a loss we have suffered. Sappho fragments do continue to surface every so often but it seems unlikely that a great deal more will be found.

The book ends, neatly, with one of my favourite fragments:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

How true.

Published 2009 by Penguin.
ISBN: 978-0-1404-5557-1