We're all aware of poetry's archaic origins as words (or vocalisations) set to music: Nietzsche goes further and suggests that "the poet cannot tell us anything that was not already contained, with a most universal validity, in such music as prompted him to his figurative discourse". We all know the other quotes about literature aspiring to the condition of music and poetry atrophying when it gets too far from music but when we turn to famous poems that purport to be composed in musical forms - Bunting's Sonatas, say, or Zukofsky's "A" or (ho-hum) Four Quartets - you discover, despite a foregrounded musicality of language, that the form is being employed more as a structural analogy than as an actual acoustic principle (as, more impressively, Joyce used the fugue in the 'Sirens' episode of Ulysses) and that on the whole, when compared with the vastly more complex arranging and orchestrating of impalpable tonal textures and ideas which composers have to deal with, poets are little better than apathetic scatterbrains merely writing down the ready-made verbiage they find around them and sometimes counting the syllables and inserting homophonic parallels. Equally, compared with the expressive skill and dexterity born of years of dedicated practice displayed by a concert pianist, a jazz drummer or a Tuvan throat singer, most poets are complacent loafers who merely stand there and read out their lines from a sheet in the funny, over-earnest voice we're all supposed to use.
Not to say that interesting things haven't been done in trying to marry music and poetry in areas outside the mainstream, white, academic field: I'm thinking mainly here of jazz-, rap- and dub-poetries as well as the sound-poetry of writers like Bob Cobbing and Tracie Morris. Of course, playing with the inherent rhythmical currents and cross-currents of language and being alert to oscillations between sound and sense are what makes poetry compelling in the first place so there is considerable potential to explore links between this and musical collaboration, although the challenge for me remains in transferring the density and complexity of language associated with more page-based poetry (ie. poetry that does not yield all its meaning on a first hearing but bears repeated re-reading and contemplation) into a live context with other auditory materials (as well as performance dynamics) to compete with.
Although bracing and far from run of the mill, the Café Oto night was a mixed affair for this very reason. Several of the acts fell down on a lack of balance between voice and musical backdrop, both on a sound-engineering level (ie. you couldn't always hear the words) and on a conceptual level, where to me the music was more engaging than the spoken text and therefore distracted me from connecting with the texts properly (extraneous noises, during quieter pieces, were also an issue at times.) The duo Map 71 more successfully welded jagged beats to Lisa Jayne's declamatory utterances, closer in delivery to a female Karl Hyde than any other poet I could name. Alan Hay, sans backing, came across as a performer whose poetry held one's interest on its own merits: mercurial, disarming, with a Frank O'Hara insouciance and fluidity about it though equally tinged with an O'Haran downbeat edge.
Compared to Hay's aslant beret and goatee, Keston Sutherland came on in conspicuously unbohemian guise: short hair, Todd Swiftian glasses and a pair of those reddish chinos usually only seen on Clapham Common or perhaps at Henley regatta. I'm an admirer of his work, in particular relishing the development from the more demonstrably Prynnean stylings of his earlier poetry to the more recent 'Ode to TL61P' where a more articulately transgressive energy is hit upon. Live, in collaboration with the grime-like beats and discords of THL Drenching (don't ask me what he was playing), Sutherland presents like the Professor of Poetry that he is having an apoplectic seizure and venting random tranches of garbled post-Marxian theory in every direction: ranting, spitting, stuttering and jerking his arms as though to vocally reinforce the already disjunctive intransigence of his texts, delivered at relentless breakneck velocity.
I stepped out into the chilly Dalston night bewildered as to whether this was one of the most cutting-edge performances by a contemporary poet I had seen or a bizarre and impalatable mismatch. Or both. What it certainly wasn't was a complacent loafer merely standing there reading his lines from a sheet.