On baby break and songwriting

Just like my daughter finds her hand,
I find my fatherhood –
a new thing, hard to understand
and part of me for good.

My daughter is three months old now and I’m beginning to have a little time for other things again, such as this progress report. I’m still in the early stage of Sermon 4.

George RR Martin has suggested that writers fall on a spectrum between pure “architects” who have everything planned out in detail before the first page is written and pure “gardeners” who have a very rough idea of where things might be heading but mostly just go with the flow of where the story seems to want to go. On the Sermons at least, I’m near the “architect” end of that scale. I saw a very rough outline of the entirety of it in a single moment, and I develop it top down from there, through various levels of clarification and specification before the words finally get spelled out on physical paper.

This is great when you have patience and want regularity, as I do. But it requires phases spent on higher levels of abstraction where all that gets written is notes and concepts, and where making things explicit too early is damaging. I’m in one of those phases. Still, there are things happening that are fit to talk about.

My little daughter truly can
bring odd things to the fore.
In these few weeks I’ve sung more than
in many years before.

When you soothe a little child, you find that singing works rather well. So I’ve been inventing a bunch of impromptu song lyrics lately. During this, I’ve started to think that my work on the Sermons is more akin to songwriting than to poetry writing.

Right now at least, what is sold as poetry seems to be mostly a plethora of free verse, without rhyme or usually even meter to constrain it – a very different art from the highly structured poetry that I’m doing. Songwriting, on the other hand, does have some rhyme and some meter – especially in hip hop. I’ve listened to the cast album of Hamilton a lot and the lyrics alone frankly impress me more than all poetry since Howl.

I think it was Banksy who said that art suffers because everyone with talent gets a job in advertising. Maybe that is also true for poetry. But some of the better poets seem to go into songwriting.

Your poetry is fine and fair,
but if you have a strong
desire someone else should care,
you’d better write a song.

That’s not a new thought. After all Leonard Cohen wrote excellent but obscure poems before he became a world famous songwriter. And Bob Dylan just got the Nobel Prize in Literature. There are probably tens of thousands of less famous (but still way more accomplished than me) writers who have explored the relation between poetry writing and songwriting. But to me, this is new.

So I think I have good reason to explore lyrics writing. I cannot write songs proper, because I have no skill or knowledge about making music, but maybe I can contribute lyrics and someone else can provide the melody and the arrangements and the singing and whatever else you need.

I have recently written lyrics for a song for a friend’s project. I enjoyed that a lot! It was partly because this was much easier than Sermon writing. I had a strong narrative to work from that I only needed to put into stanzas, and “I and “You” were allowed, which always helps. Such a comparatively small self-contained project is easy to envision as a whole, so you can see at a glance what a change of wording in one stanza does to the rest of the text. Now I’m curious what song, if any, will become of it.

And so I have started work on another song, provisionally named “Children of the Milky Way”. The lyrics are derived from the first Sermon but I want it to stand on its own and be appreciated even by people who don’t care for the much longer meditation. Maybe it can even function as a kind of trailer or intro. I’m sticking with the common metre format, which has been used in so many Christian church hymns that it seems proper to reference that tradition musically as well. But for that, I’ll have to find a composer. And it just so happens I know a guy…

Among the reasons you might start
a family, there’s to
begin to grasp the hopeful heart
your parents felt for you.

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