Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hooked on mnemonics

Unbelievably, I never went to an artist colony until I was on my thirty-third trip around the sun. What was I thinkin'? I even celebrated the completion of the thirty-third revolution at a colony, with Rolling Rock, naturally. And with luminous luminaries such as Helen Winternitz, Alvin Singleton, Tom Chandler and Tania León to celebrate it with. And coonskin caps.
Just before finishing that thirty-third trip, I embarked on one of the least glamorous collaborations ever. They tell you plenty of collaborations are born at artist colonies, and they are right. This one wasn't necessarily for the ages — perhaps it was for the widths (I don't get the joke either). Said Chandler poet guy said he had words for a state song for Rhode Island and he wanted someone to write music for it (that would be moi). As he told it, since Rhode Island is the smallest state with the most, uh, ancient and ingrained political corruption, it needed a very strong song that would evoke so much loyalty that its citizens would go so far as to self-mutilate as a sign of their love of state. O Rhode Island/I would pound nails in my eyes was the opening salvo.


I wrote a nice solemn setting in 3 that you could graduate to, taught it to the assembled throng, and it became our theme. Note that without the silent 'e' it would have been our them, which is just weird. I wrot it in about 45 minuts, passed out the sheet music, and ther you go. The only reason I agreed to do it was that I wanted to challenge myself to discover the most tasteless ways to use French augmented sixths in a piece of music (I don't know wher els I would us them, but ther you go). Success. There's even one of those French thingies decorating a secondary dominant!

We now learn and sing O Rhode Island in every music theory class I teach. Since I now have a perfect specimen of how to use the French sixth in other than sterling ways.

A few years later, a Columbia theory student arranged the tune for a cappella choir and got a group to sing it at a gathering given by Jack Greenberg, then a Dean. The new words: O Columbia/I would pound nails in my eyes....

It would work for Pennsylvania, too, with the "O" removed. It wouldn't work at all for Florida. (O flor-ID-a)

Right around the same time, I was hangin' at the same Colony with Marilyn Chin, whom I had met in the previous colony of my thirty-third revolution hop. See, with a silent 'e' added, it would be a revolution hope, even stranger, no? Marilyn had been hoping around from colony to colony, too, and dreaded returning to teaching at the end of the summer.

So at dinner one night, she asked if I knew any song mnemonics for poetic meters. Excuse me? I don't trust words that begin mn, and it just sounded like a suspicious question. Plus, I hardly ever — maybe never — use words that begin with mn. Actually, I wasn't listening because I was talking to someone else. So I asked her to repeat the question, this time with me listening. The derivation of the word is Greek, she said. Really? Mno shit?

She was going to teach poetic meter in a beginning poetry class (don't everybody?) and she thought if she knew of some well-known songs that utilized standard meters, she could teach them by using the songs as examples, rather than dryly. — the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down; the wind beneath my wings; forty-seven pairs of freshly laundered trousers.

I thought long and hard, and came up with zilch on the spot. Except Farmer in the Dell, which was easy. Iambic triameter (gesundheit!). Three poetic feet (a poetic yard!) of unstressed, stressed.

The problem, of course, was that not a lot of poetry that would be studied in a beginning poetry class has been written in iambic triameter. Unless you consider nursery rhymes to be actual poetry. No, you're the snob! No, you are! Whatever you say about me bounces right back on you!

Well, there is one well-known e.e. cummings poem — a very dark one — that is written in iambic triameter. I knew that because I had just done a setting of it for voice and orchestra, as the finale of my first symphony, which I had just finished.

My first symphony is very serious. You can tell by the name: Symphony No. 1

The thing with having a nursery rhyme in the same poetic meter as the serious, dark poem of cummings is, of course, that you can sing the poem to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell. Rendering it instantly hilarious. Enough hilarity to relaunch the Hindenburg. Go ahead, follow the link to the poem and sing it as The Farmer in the Dell. I can wait.

See? I'm still here.

No, really. Go do it.

It also seems to be well known that a vast quantity of Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Again, shared song and poetic meters. Others have noted, usually with not much hilarity at all, that Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening can be sung to the tune of Hernando's Hideaway. The reader is invited to do more research therein.

I remember when I noticed that in the hymnal we used in church, there were series of numbers separated by commas printed near the title of each hymn — and I figured out it was a tally of the number of syllables of each line in the hymn. Apparently you could match up hymns with the same syllable count and sing them to any of the other tunes.

And there are like, what, five or six different available hymn settings of Away in a Manger?

The real hard task, said Marilyn, was to find a song in iambic pentameter. Since there's so much serious poetry written with it. Especially sonnets. And, as Marilyn recognized, once the students have a song mnemonic for iambic pentameter, then it makes it easier for them to write the sonnets she will assign them — since they can sing and get exactly the right stresses and number of syllables every time (stresses and number of syllables = poetic meter, dude. I am so redundant).

After a day of thinking and writing some of Winged Contraption, I had the answer. O come, O come, Emmanuel. The words themselves are in iambic tetrameter, but the medieval composer who wrote it stuck a nice honkin' melisma on "man" — and on "Is" of Israel in the second line. Take out the melisma (i.e., add two syllables) and you've got your iambic pentameter. Woo hoo! Stir to taste!

Our first test case will be, of course, a sonnet. Does it work? Of course it does, because, well, it just does. You can even see Billie's dissonance with the meter (tem - per - ate) and make the argument that by putting Thou on a weak poetic syllable, he's diminishing thine importance. Well, you can make the argument. I just never ever get a chance to use thine in a sentence. Although I do use it with the silent 'e' chopped off. Yes, the ending of the Lord's Prayer will never be the same: For thin is the kingdom and the power, and the glory forever, Amen. It also won't be the sam.

And I have found myself idly composing lines in iambic pentameter to pass the time — as all pretentious people do — by using this song. Or maybe, just maybe ... I have found myself.


I don't remember if Marilyn and I settled on songs for other poetic meters. I mean, once you've conquered the meter of Shakespeare's sonnets, how much higher is there to go? How much higher should you go?

But if you want to sing the classic poetry not covered by these two songs, and then laugh so hard that snot comes out of your nose, go out and find them. Right now.

I can wait.