He's not a famous rapper; he's not known for slam poetry; he doesn't even write poems that you would recognize. Yet Li-Young Lee, the featured poet in this year's Buffalo/Williamsville Poetry and Music Celebration, has a way of making poetry speak to teens.
There's something about the way he combines simple language with emotional intensity that speaks to the conflicting emotions of the human heart. Love, forgiveness, passion, family memory -- they're all there. Perhaps that's why a handful of aspiring young composers have selected Li-Young Lee's poems to set to music in this year's celebration at Kleinhans Music Hall on Thursday.
Jen Aguglia, a freshman at Williamsville East High School, says she was immediately attracted to Li-Young Lee's poetry. "I read through the packet of poems we were given, and when I read 'Echo and Shadow,' by Li-Young Lee, I could hear the music in my head. The poem actually let me hear a melody. I was also attracted to the symbolism in the poem; the contrasts in the images allowed me to hear the contrasts in the music I wanted to create."
The idea that poetry can be transformed into song, into melody, and into music is closely connected to the process of individual creative energy. Poetry reinvents itself; it is understood in a different way when it becomes music. For teenage composers, the transformation from poem to music becomes a process that helps them relate to the poem; it becomes meaningful in a personal way. It also acts as a source of inspiration for musical composition.
According to Jen Aguglia, Li-Young Lee's poems, like music, have layers of meaning. "In order to write a a song, you need to be aware of musical elements like repetition and melody. I could imagine both of those things in the poem; it has two parts -- the idea of echo and shadow. It also has a sense of repetition -- 'a room and a room' and 'a world and a world.' The poem lets you see the images, but the challenge was how to develop the images through music and melody."
"The poem seemed to fit the style of musical composition I felt comfortable with, so I sat down at the piano right away. It was originally a piece for the piano, but then I decided it would be better to divide it for different instruments -- French horn, oboe, clarinet, flute, and bassoon."
Jen admits that the process of composing was challenging; she wanted to keep the idea of the poem in her mind since it would also be read while the music was being played. "It was the first piece I ever wrote, and at first I didn't know where to start. But then I read the poem again, and I knew what I wanted the music to sound like."
"I took the poem, the words, and I went with the way it made me feel."
In many ways, "Echo and Shadow" is typical of Li-Young Lee's poetry. It is a poem of exploration and a search for understanding; it has layers of meaning even though the language is deceptively simple:
everywhere I wait for her,
as even now her voice
seems a lasting echo
of my heart's calling me home,
an ocean beyond my human beginning,
each wave tolling the whole note
of my outcome and belonging.
Like Jen Aguglia, Jonah Richmond, a senior at City Honors, felt himself drawn to the lyricism in Li-Young Lee's poetry. "I had never even heard of Li-Young Lee," he admits. "When I started the process of writing the music, I knew that I liked to write a fairly structured melody. Li-Young Lee's poem, 'From Blossoms' has stanzas and a sense of structure. I liked the narrative flow and the form of it. To me, it looked like the verses of a song. I wanted to write a piece that could be sung, and 'From Blossoms' sounded like it had a melody."
"I liked the way the poem made me feel. It seemed sunny, warm, and a little bit nostalgic; it emitted a nice feeling."
The last stanza of the poem captures the feelings Jonah describes:
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Jonah Richmond believes that Li-Young Lee's poem has a sense of emotion that can be captured in music, although he admits that it wasn't easy to make it flow exactly like the poem itself. "I wanted the music to continue that feeling of nostalgia that is in the poem. I hope it captures the sense of memory and the associations linked to that memory. I want people to listen to it and think, 'What a nice song!' -- hopefully, it will give people a beautiful, peaceful feeling."
"I think that the melody, like the poem, builds in intensity. When it first starts, you don't know exactly what it is about; it seems like a memory. Then you realize that the first stanza sets you up for the emotional release at the end of the poem. The first time I read the poem, I couldn't imagine it as music, but then I began to see how it really was musical -- the language and the form."
Sometimes it is simply the form of a poem that inspires a student to create something new. That's what happened to Drew Jenkins, a senior at Williamsville East. "Li-Young Lee's poem, 'The Other Hours,' was like a road map for me," he explains. "It guided me through the process of composition; it helped me to get through the times when I was stuck. In fact, this was the first piece of music I ever composed and finished!"
"I could really hear the music in the poem. There were a couple of words like 'ruin' and 'beginning' that implied a change of feelings, so I used those contrasts in the music. I took one chord for the word 'ruin' -- I made it sound dissonant by adding another chord to it. The word 'beginning' had to have a different sound, and the music reflects the various conflicting emotions in the poem."
Drew admits that it was a long process. "I began by writing musical notes near certain words of the poems, but there were many times when parts didn't seem to work. I did a lot of revision; it took me over two months to finish. I learned a lot about composing and what it takes to make a piece of music work."
It is Drew's hope that the combination of French horn and piano will lend itself to the poem and to the music. "A good musician can capture and expand upon all kinds of feelings through music, and I think the combination of instruments will help to develop the emotional aspects of the poem itself."
Music, like poetry, is meant to be shared; it is meant to be heard and to be felt. By transforming Li-Young Lee's vibrant, powerful poems into original music, a new connection and integration of art forms is created; a metamorphosis unlike any other. For student composers, it becomes a process of personal discovery -- of self and of art. For the audience, it becomes a process of recognition, as the sounds and rhythms of poetry are reinvented.
Call it poetry that sings -- poetry that gives shape to what is invisible, but what can be heard. Or, as Li-Young Lee writes in the final sentence of his poem, "You Must Sing": "you must sing to be found; when found, you must sing." The Buffalo/Williamsville Poetry and Music Celebration, featuring poet Li-Young Lee and students from Buffalo and Williamsville, will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall. Admission is free.