Daigon was a professional singer for many years and a Columbia Recording Artist. When she sang at Dylan Thomas's funeral, she never dreamed that poetry would take over her life. Ms. Daigon shares her insights on the ways in which music has influenced her poetry.
Our season tickets stamped
on our arms
we sit among the perfumed furs
and patent leather
in our striped uniforms, waiting.
Footlights flow. She appears
Opening chords lift off
like birds flying backwards.
Long skeins of sound
wrap loosely around listeners
Phrases gleam brighter than
searchlights on prison towers.
Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freude,
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh.(Bach)
High notes strict as flames
in burning synagogues
singe us in our seats.
Her burnished voice,
her tempos locked in marrow,
the even rhythm of her breath
moves us toward the showers.
Wenn die Lieb aus deinem blauen
hellen, offnen Augen zieht...(Mozart)
She sings of spring melting
shards of winter,
of summer burning along branches,
of seeds spiraling to earth
as light as babies falling in slow motion
into soft beds of soil.
Guten Abend, gute Nacht
mit Roslein gedacht...(Brahms)
the texture of her voice
rubbed smooth by each new season.
Ours grown thin as parchment.
JAZZ AND THE TRAINING
(a summer concert on the campus of a Connecticut university attended
by patients from a nearby institution)
Summer time an the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh your daddy's rich, an' your ma
is good lookin'
so hush little baby, Don' you cry
floats over the long procession led
by a man thumping air where a drum
buried, followed by crutches welded to armpits, twigs propped in wheelchairs
and husks on stretchers. A frisbee skims past the slow moving line where
man holds a blade of grass to whistle through, another hugs a ghost,
with a chestful of arrows stalks a woman scattering crumbs. When a lame
performs her three-legged dance, heads balloon out of surgical collars.
Get your hat and get your coat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
just direct your feet to the sunny
side of the street...
washes over skulls nodding to the rhythm
but each one drools a private tune.
An old man curls up on a nipple of notes.
Another swims through the clover with a drowning splash.
I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man...
who could ask
for anything more?
I got daisies in green pasture,
I got my man who could ask
for anything more?
sends a child rabbit-hopping into an attendant's arms
and an old woman scrubs the air clean of sound.
O when the saints go marchin' in...
O when the saints go marchin' in
I'd like to be in their number
When the saints go marchin' in
nudges them to their feet, they
hook their crooked
shadows on shuffling into place
for the slow march back.
The Relationship Of Poetry and Music
By Ruth Daigon
Since I was a professional singer long before I entered poetry, I used everything I knew about music to discover poetry. The connection between my past life and my present is in my poem which exists in different forms under two titles “Cultural Exchange” and “Cultural Event.” When I first studied singing with Emil Gartner in Toronto, he introduced me to German lieder. I admired them so much more than the showy operatic arias. A certain famous German soprano was my idol. I’d listen to her constantly, went to her concerts when I could afford them, and considered myself to be her greatest fan. Later when I came to New York and sang with Pro Musica, I heard through several reputable sources that my soprano had been involved with Heinrich Himmler. I stopped listening to her. When I heard the announcement of her final recital at Lincoln Center, I went, though even then, a friend had to push me through the door and into the hall.
The poem in both its versions addresses the puzzle of artistic sensibility cohabiting with the horrors of genocide. But it is also a poem of my artistic conscience, of the intersection of my life as a singer and as a poet. Accordingly, the poem exists in two forms, both of which I consider equally valid, depending upon the performance or the occasion. In the 80's, I tried a form which I called “song poems.” The form was suggested to me by my husband who thought that it would be a way to combine my interests and talents. I used songs or parts of them as illustrations or as ironic commentary upon the content of the poems. In “Cultural Exchange” I had passages from the best of German lieder (Bach, Mozart, Brahms ) run parallel and counter to concentration camp scenes. The two forms running parallel to one another were meant to evoke the best and worst of German culture, which created both the lovely refrain Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freude,/ zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruhof Bach and the “burning synagogues.” In the audience, listening to that final recital, it was impossible not to think of the Holocaust even though her singing was still superb.
When I performed "Cultural Exchange", I would sing the leider and then read the stanzas of poetry. I was very aware of my dual role. Reading the passages of poetry I was part of the audience “season tickets stamped on our arms,” but, singing the leider, I became the soprano who evoked that troubling exchange.
At first when I performed these song-poems, the audience seemed to have some trouble with the shift. But they quickly seemed to accept the combination of reading with singing. Perhaps, I was helped by the fact that many in those early audiences knew me as a singer and so came to my early readings out of a pre-existing supportiveness and enthusiasm.
I was to continue writing and performing song-poems. The form seemed a logical progression for me from the realm of music and made it possible to juxtapose several realities. At the time, my husband was teaching at the University of Connecticut and, about a mile or so away, was a place called The Mansfield Training Center that housed human beings of all ages ranging from children through young adults, the middle-aged, and the very old. People were placed in that institution when they were incapable of taking care of themselves or there was no one to care for them. Some of the people were incapable of any movement, others were physically disabled in many ways. Although there was severe physical damage, their problems were primarily cognitive, their IQ's ranging from 30 to 65.
The University made a point of involving the students with these patients..... just taking them for walk on the grounds or to the local ice cream parlor and every so often the University would have a jazz picnic.... we brought all our kids, sat on blankets and listened to many of the local and not-so-local musicians who were really good. As part of this activity, many of the patients were bussed in. They all seemed to drag off the bus, but, when the music started, there was an enormous change in the way they moved, and looked. Their expressions changed. Their faces lit up.
Our own children, at first, stuck to the blankets and their parents... but in time there was a kind of connection between the children and the patients that was beautiful to watch. Jazz brings out so much joy in the ordinary listener, but you should have seen the response, the leaping, the faces coming alive, the fun generated among the patients and everyone else... Out of this unforgettable experience, I wrote the song-poem "Jazz and the Training School Patients."
The indented italicized stanzas are of course the music ... sung and played and stamped and danced to.... it was pure joy. This was one of the most difficult song-poems to write because just watching these people caused such emotional turmoil that was very hard to control and
I didn't want to overstep the bounds of sentimentality or sympathy......I must have written it 800 times.
As eventually the poetry took over, I left the song-poems behind. I began to think that I didn’t want to trade on my singing. I primarily wrote lyric verse and felt that lyric poetry is linked (or tarred with) strong feelings, whether it be feelings of love, loss, loneliness, or the too-quick passage of time. My job and the task of the poem seemed to be to translate those feelings or passions into language that would stand on its own and resonate in the mind of the reader. “Cultural Exchange” became “Cultural Event” and the sections of leider that had once been sung were deleted.
In the performance of a lied, the emotion and tone are always carefully controlled. By giving a little less, the singer conveys a feeling of great depth. Just imagine a Wagnerian soprano attacking a sensitive little Schubert lied. A few high C’s or a thunderous crescendo and poor Schubert lies slaughtered on the stage. Of course I’m exaggerating...Wagnerian sopranos generally don’t go near the concert repertoire. But I have seen singers on stage who are so carried away by the emotional content of the music that they crack on the high notes, run out of breath, and completely destroy a song. “Complete freedom” in singing is not freedom at all, but a lack of control.
All of the musical imperatives of tonal control, technical skill, the feeling of energy and power under restraint, were very useful when applied to the making of a poem. Musical control, translated into the realm of writing poetry, means not squeezing the emotional content out of each word, but letting the phrase carry itself. You have to let go of that all-too-familiar feeling “Look, Ma, I’m singing,” and hold back every obvious word, gesture, or phrase. This means trusting your own skill, your own control, and, above all, trusting in the poem itself. Lyric poetry is often synonymous with a passionate outpouring, a singing, a saying. The poet may feel that to restrain or modify the emotion is to somehow betray the depth of feeling. However, the greater the extent of the passion, the more appropriate it is to harness and control such energy. A little understatement makes the poem more powerful–not only cognitively but affectively.
A good singer doesn’t bear down on each note and squeeze it dry in order to make certain that her audience “gets it.” So a poet should avoid explaining a poem to death. A wild fling into emotionally overwrought language can ruin a poem or, even, on a larger scale, a reading.
When I plan to give a poetry reading, I always research the program, the work of the other poets, the audience, and then plan accordingly. It’s much the same way I plan a song recital program. I’ll begin with a poem that serves as an overview and then carefully follow it with poems of varied rhythms, textures, sounds. Sometimes a little crescendo is necessary to make the performance more exciting, to move it along. Sometimes if you’ve read something powerful and the audience needs to recover, you slow the pace with a love poem or nature poem. It depends upon the quality of the work, but you constantly vary the sound, rhythm, and mood in a performance to keep it from bogging down or getting dull. I even rehearse as I would for a recital by practicing with a stop watch! In general, my training has lead me to avoid reading long poems because the audience loses its concentration. I also have a decided preference for strong endings.
The poet should respect his or her audience and give them a chance to bring their own knowledge to the poem just as a musician must allow his audience to follow the music without too many program notes. It’s astonishing how each reader calls upon her own experience to understand or interpret the poem. In my view, once the poem is opened up to other readers, the author should expect changes in meaning, interpretation and in affect. There are as many shades of meaning as there are readers, and each reader has the right and the freedom to interpret the poem according to his or her experience as long as the disciplines and demands of the text are not violated. This, again, is like music, where a piece written by a particular composer may be “interpreted” in many different ways by subsequent performers in various performances. For me, this multiplicity of interpretation is one of the ways in which a work continues to live.