Poe in G Minor BY JEFFERY DEAVER
The year is 1971. I’m sitting on a stool on a low stage, two spotlights shining in my face. I clutch my dreadnought-size guitar. (Think Bob Dylan’s Gibson Hummingbird on the cover of Nashville Skyline, but without the hummingbird.)
The venue is called the Chez, which I’ve recently learned means “The house of…” in French. (Not usually talented at languages, I pay attention in that particular class because I have a breathless crush on my professor, a cross between Linda Ronstadt and Claudine Longet, who, yes, shot that skier, but I don’t care.)
The Chez is a coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri, where I’m a junior in the university’s Journalism School. I come here to perform folk songs in the evenings once or twice a week. The admission is free, the frothy pre-Starbucks concoctions are cheap, and owing to its location in a church, the place is alcohol-free. All of which means the audiences are sober, attentive, and-fortunately for me-forgiving.
Though I’m at school to become the next Walter Cronkite, singing and songwriting are my passions, and if I’d been able to make a living on the stage I’d have signed up in an instant-no insurance plan or 401(k) needed-even if the devil himself was the head of the record label’s A &R department.
This Friday night I begin fingerpicking a melody that’s not of my composition. It was written by Phil Ochs, a young singer-songwriter central to the folk music scene of the sixties and early seventies. He wrote a number of songs that embodied the psyche of that era, like “Draft Dodger Rag” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” but the song that I’m performing this Friday is not social or political. It’s a lyrical ballad-one that I love and with which I often open my sets.
Ochs generally wrote both the music and words for his songs, but for this tune he created the melody only; the lyrics were from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells.” The poem features four stanzas, each describing bells’ tolling for different occasions: a happy social outing, a marriage, a tragedy, and finally a funeral. The first stanza concludes:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Is “The Bells” Poe’s best poem? No. It’s a bit of a trifle, lacking the insight and brooding power he was capable of. But is it a pure pleasure to read aloud or perform? Absolutely. By the final verse my audiences were invariably singing along.
I have always loved Poe’s prose fiction, and it has been a major influence, both informing the macabre tone of my writing and inspiring my plot twists and surprise endings. But I was a poet and songwriter before I was a novelist, and his lyrical works attracted me first. I believe that, in writing, less is more and that poetry, when well crafted, is the most emotionally direct form of written communication. Richard Wilbur, the former poet laureate of America, offered this metaphor about poetry (I’m paraphrasing): the confinement of the bottle is what gives the genie his strength. His meaning is that conciseness and controlled rhythm, rhyme, and figure of speech create a more powerful expression than unleashed outpourings.
In Poe’s work the combination of this control and his preferred themes-crime, passion, death, the dark side of the mind-make pure magic.
Blend those two ingredients with music… well, culture don’t get any better than that.
Phil Ochs was moved to adapt a poem, but Poe's prose works too have found second lives as musical compositions. Indeed, there aren’t many authors-Shakespeare aside-whose body of work has provided seeds for so much melodic inspiration.
Claude Debussy, composer of Clair de Lune and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, cited Poe as one of his major influences. He began two Poe-inspired operas, one based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” and one on “The Devil in the Belfry.” Neither was completed by the composer, though a version of “Usher” was reconstructed in the 1970s and performed. Philip Glass, the minimalist composer, also wrote a successful opera based on “Usher,” as did Peter Hammill, the British singer-songwriter.
Presently the British theater company Punchdrunk is staging its version of “The Masque of Red Death” at the Battersea Arts Center in London. The show-a “site-specific,” interactive piece (the latest trend in theater, I hear)-features otherworldly choreography, classical music, and masked audience members roaming the elaborate, candle-lit performing space, mingling with the actors. Though not praised by all critics, the play is one of the hottest tickets in English theater, and the buzz is that it’s headed for New York.
Sergei Rachmaninoff turned a Russian translation of “The Bells” into a choral symphony. The twentieth-century British composer and conductor Joseph Holbrooke wrote several Poe adaptations, including the symphonic works The Raven and The Bells, and he composed the music for a ballet based on “Masque.” New York City choreographer David Fernandez wrote a short ballet based on “The Raven.”
Lou Reed, a longtime admirer of Poe, produced a two-CD set entitled The Raven-his first release in some years-featuring exclusively work influenced by Poe. The material was performed by Reed and, among others, David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Steve Buscemi, and Willem Dafoe.
Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Stevie Nicks have all performed folk versions of “Annabel Lee,” and the brilliant British art-rock group the Alan Parsons Project released Tales of Mystery and Imagination, an album filled entirely with Poe-inspired material. At least one track, I believe, actually made it into the Top 40. There have been many other performers, from Dylan to Marilyn Manson to Iron Maiden, who claimed inspiration by Poe or worked references from his work into theirs.
Oh, okay, I’ll mention one other adaptation: my own musical version of Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream,” which I composed when I was in my twenties and determined to slap the wrist of a selfdelusional society. (Inexplicably, my adaptation did not make any Top 40 lists, so don’t bother searching for downloads on iTunes-or even LimeWire.)
Looking at this recitation of adaptations, you can’t help but wonder why Poe appeals to so many musicians, and ones of such vastly differing styles and forms (I mean, Debussy and Lou Reed?).
I think the answer is that Poe’s work is inherently musical.
His storytelling is the stuff of opera, which has classic beginning, middle, and end structures, revels in crime, violence, the gothic, passion, and death, and is often over the top and borders on melodrama, sure, but, hey, we don’t go to the opera for subtlety.
As for his poems-they uniformly display a lyricism and craft that the best, most emotionally engaging songs possess. Whether or not it’s been set to music, Poe’s writing is hummable.
After all, name another popular writer who could, with such intoxicating meter and imagery, write a poem embracing nothing less than love, tragedy, and death, that would find its way into concert halls and recording studios one hundred years later… and that coins and seamlessly fits in a six-syllable jawbreaker like “tintinnabulation.”
Got you beat there, Will Shakespeare.
About Jeffrey Deaver
Once upon a morning bright, waking from too short a night,
The author wandered from his bed, nagged by some looming task, he knows.
Ah, yes, he’s done his piece on Poe but has a bit more yet to go
Because his bio, it’s now clear, just cannot be writ in prose.
It must be a poem, never prose.
Some fifty-seven years ago, he was born in Chicago.
He studied writing very young and practiced as a journalist
And then a lawyer in New York town but, truth be told, it got him down.
And so in 1989, he told his boss, “I call it quits.”
The day job’s dead. He called it quits.
Since then he’s been writing thrillers, about folks fleeing hired killers
And detectives trying to track down psychos sick as the fiend Lecter.
The novels number twenty-four, short stories more or less two score.
Two movies sprouted from his books: Dead Silence and The Bone Collector.
Yes, Angelina and Denzel-The Bone Collector.
His books, known specially for their twists, hit worldwide best-seller lists.
Translated into thirty tongues, they’re sold in many, many nations.
He’s won top prizes overseas, and here at home three Ellery Queens.
He hasn’t got an Edgar yet, but has received six nominations.
Poe, help him out-six nominations!
His latest tale, if you get the chance, is a series premiering Kathryn Dance,
Called The Sleeping Doll. And due this summer, June or July,
We’ll see the author’s popular hero, Lincoln Rhyme, in The Broken Window.
(Sorry, but it would take an Edgar Poe to make that last line fly.
He did his best; it just won’t fly.)