Music's Spell

A pocket-sized collection of poems about the power of music.

Music’s Spell Edited by Emily Fragos Everyman’s Library 256 pp., $13.50

For readers hoping to turn a daily commute into moments of magic, or to convert a wait in a long line into a lyrical delight, here’s a suggestion: Try putting some poetry in your pocket. 

More specifically, find a copy of Music’s Spell: Poems About Music and Musicians edited by Emily Fragos. It is the newest installment in a series of pocket-sized poetry anthologies published in classy (on fine paper and festooned with a ribbon bookmark), bargain-priced, hardcover editions by Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series.

This is a collection of 162 poems by both the famous and obscure about the power of music and musicians, and you’ll likely find several dozen of these works are capable of setting your pulse racing and mind happily meandering.

The poems in “Music’s Spell” are slotted into categories (such as “Pop and Rock,” “Jazz and Blues,” “Classical Composers,” “Practice,” “Music and Love”), but don’t take these divides too seriously. This tiny, winsome collection invites random sampling.

Most poems fit one page. The expected selections include Shakespeare (“If music be the food of love, play on!”), several 19th-century English romantic poets, and Walt Whitman.

But the surprises are particular delights. The Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite, better known for reggae poetry from his former homeland, Jamaica, offers a heartbreaking homage to the jazz great John Coltrane (“he leans and wishes he could burn/ his memories to ashes like some old notorious emperor”).

Joyce Carol Oates, better known for her fiction than poetry, shines in a poem written from the viewpoint of a dinner waitress serving Elvis (“aren’t you feeling my face burn but/ he was the kind of boy even meanness turned sweet in/ his mouth”).

And the Chinese poet Chang-Wou-Kien in “The Pavilion of Music” requires only 23 words to compare the fading notes of musicians to lilacs that bend in the rich silence that follows a stellar performance.

Discovering the music of poetry requires that poems be read aloud, and a number of these poems invite exactly that. Note the impact of word choice and punctuation in Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!”:

Beat! beat! drums! – blow!  bugles!  blow!
Through the windows – through doors – burst like a ruthless force,

This sets up a percussive cadence much like conga drummers jamming in a park on a summer’s day. And note how Allen Ginsberg’s “First Party at Ken Kesey’s With Hell’s Angels” explodes with the crackling, rolling, roiling energy of rock ’n’ roll:

In the huge
wooden house, a yellow  chandelier
at 3 a.m. the blast of loudspeakers
hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles
Jumping Joe Jackson and twenty youths
dancing to the vibration thru the floor.

And Wallace Stevens serves the refined trills of classical music in “Mozart, 1935”:

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation

This book’s only competitor, “The Music Lover’s Anthology” edited by Helen Handley Houghton and Maureen M. Draper, doesn’t fit in a pocket, costs twice as much, and omits Shakespeare. But it does include Jack Kerouac and Pablo Neruda. Poetry lovers will want both.

Norman Weinstein is a contributor to the Monitor’s Culture section.

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