Tuesday, 11 February 2014

What is in a poem?

Right from the moment I composed my first music, I have enjoyed working in this medium. Every note expresses emotion, and the difference in emotional charge between successive notes generates drama. This ability of music to express drama  perhaps culminated in my chamber opera Highland River. However much I enjoy composing music, I have felt increasingly frustrated with the expressive possibilities available in the medium of music. Though the title of a work and programme notes can illuminate what a piece of music is about, instrumental music itself has little opportunities to express ideas behind it. To acknowledge this, my community music work has always contained an element of words, be it as song lyrics or poetry. In answer to my frustration about the limited ability of music to express conceptual ideas I developed the idea of a winter residency at Scottish Sculpture Workshop to explore the expressive opportunities of poetry in its own right, and identify ways in which I can use poetry as a medium in community arts projects.

Whereas music is based on sound, poetry is a medium based on words that are either heard or read. The series of poems I wrote for my residency at SSW were composed for performance. As written last month, when performed poetry shares many characteristics with music, not least because of rhythm, rhyme and repetition. Yet, poetry uses words to create images. What’s more, in their book Studying Poetry, Matterson and Jones argue that poetry can be thought of as a way of thinking in images and liken it to visual arts. In A New Bucket, for example, I used the image of a bucket to illuminate the dreams families might have cherished about life in town. Like music, poetry often unfolds through a series of images. In A New Bucket I have used the contrast between the pail the used in the cottage and the plastic bucket the mother would get in town to create drama and depth. 

A New Bucket
Mother would get a new bucket, she said,
Once father started his job in town
A new bucket mother would get
Filled with maternal feelings and foam

The new bucket would be unlike
The pail in the cottage
No more dents, harsh clanging
Troubled water killing soap
No more heavy pails
Engrained in mother’s hands

The new bucket would be plastic, mother said,
Plastic would dampen thuds
And the bubbles on the clean water
Would celebrate days out in the park

Mother would get a new bucket, she said
Like auntie Betty was given
When she moved her expanding family to town
To chase bubbles.

My residency at SSW has been an inspiring experience. Among the things I’ll take away are the joy I have experienced writing poetry, the ways in which imagery can be manipulated to express conceptual ideas, and the ideas I developed for future community arts projects involving poetry. Next up will be an exploration of poetry as a medium in arts-led inquiry.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

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