On 3rd June, Eborakon hosted a poetry reading with Melanie Challenger alongside University of York postgraduate student, Steven Roberts. Challenger also gave a talk, ‘“To sing instead of speaking”: the different demands of writing for the page or the stage’.
Below are (transcribed) excerpts from her provocative and intelligent discussion of poetry, artistic freedom, and writing for music. Challenger’s most recent collaboration with composer Mark Simpson, The Immortal, will premiere on the 4th July at the Manchester International Festival.
(click to enlarge)
On the false dichotomy “clarity vs difficulty” in contemporary poetry:
"There’s been a quiet argument in British poetry, which is partly driven by egoistic anxieties, about whether poetry should be clear or confounding, difficult or relaxed, avant-garde or mainstream, yadda yadda. I found the idea that one had to concern oneself with such prescriptions deeply unappealing […]
Poetry, [it has been claimed], is an “act of communication” first and foremost. But, is it? Why on earth would one place a deeply important moral or ethical point in a poem, when one could put it into prose even more clearly and direct it to a larger and more diverse audience? Poetry has, historically, contained subtle religious and philosophical ideas, but great examples of this, Manley Hopkins, Donne, are far from easy, plain-speaking writers. If theirs was an act of communication, it didn’t necessitate clarity. Of course, there is some truth in the idea of audience and immediacy; there is some truth that there are circumstances when it’s important to be readily understood. For instance, when one needs to make a law into very simple English for all people to understand. But the fact that something is circumstantially true about language does not make it the whole truth. Clarity, audience, moral content, emotional content, are only components in poetic practice. So this rather silly argument, which was ongoing in British poetry, utterly put me off writing poems. So I stopped writing for a while."
On her shift to libretti:
"What I enjoyed was working with language with the same interest that governed my poetry but in a completely different field. [There is an argument] that writing poetry is quantifiably different than writing for music. But is it really? There’s the debate about whether lyrics are poems. What is it that drives us to define things? The context usually makes something poetry, and its reception. But, for me, the act of composition, itself, isn’t markedly different. There are differences but really it all just feels like messing with language to create certain effects. I regard my libretti as libretti, as this makes most sense for its definition. But the libretto is none the less poetic. [As an example, the work of Alice Goodman]:
From The Death of Klinghoffer.
Is not the ocean itself their past?
Landscape of night for Him
Who is called All-Seeing, untouched
by storms, deep-silted with the motes
of carrion which stand for light.
God rests in nothing. The perfect shapes,
delicately blazing monstrous creatures,
cross obliquely eating lice and moss.
Here is a semblance of the first man;
sinewy, translucent, thick with life,
superficially violent, inwardly calm.
His pulse beats in his ears. He is secretive;
entrenched in his side, the sacred parasites.
This is the night of his wedding.
His extremities reek of his wife,
flesh of his flesh, a rib of sand,
who is listening, not to his voice
but to the voice of spirits, and waiting
for the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil
to climb down from the trees."
On operatic and musical furores, and austerities of lyric style:
"Why are we particularly censorious when it comes to music? Because music heightens our emotions and is even further removed from speech, and so we are under the impression we must be careful. Also, because, for many, music is more enjoyable – more instantly enjoyable. What do we do if we enjoy listening to a piece [that concerns itself with the complexities of] terrorism? Auden, one of the most famous librettist-poets, has said that opera was for him “the last refuge of the High style” because modernism had demanded a plainer approach to language and style. Auden wrote in a classical mode as opposed to his more direct poetic style: Rake’s Progress, etc. But for most people, it’s the opposite. One has to be careful about the use of excessively poetic phrases that will overdo it when the music is added. Phrases are much longer when sung […] So in a way, opera libretti are a more controlled art form than poetry."
On ‘writing over’ words with music:
"Perhaps the greatest difference [between writing for the stage instead of the page] is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if one hears the words, whereas it matters immensely on the page. In fact, when one’s writing a libretto, you have to decide which bits you actually want the audience to hear and which bits the composer can write over, so to speak. In this way, you have to pay close attention to what matters and what doesn’t in the experience of listening. In Pleasure [her collaboration with Mark Simpson, premiering in Leeds 2016] the characters and story mean that the clarity of the words matters immensely; but in The Immortal it is not necessary for every word to be heard and comprehended. But the words always matter to the composer and the librettist, and getting the inspiration and creative dialogue right between the two goes a long way to whether the work will be successful or a failure."
On the rationale and purpose of art:
"My search for a suitable response to the claims of clarity in writing has lead [ultimately] to the idea of Art for Art’s sake. [It has] taken me a long, long time to understand that fully. Originally, I suppose, it simply meant that art needn’t have a function or purpose outside of its own being. Now I see it more subtly. One needn’t create art for any reason other than its own being, but the value we attribute to this art comes to stand for greater values than art alone. It comes to stand for the value of attributing meaning. It comes to stand for an environment in which artistic expression can flourish, and be free, and the sound world/word world simply needs to work, but doesn’t need to be hostage to anything else."