After a six-year stretch as a forensic psychologist in prisons, I escaped and trained as a psychotherapist. Therapy has profoundly informed my thinking about many things, most notably relationships, memory, and language.
Language is a central phenomenon in our lives. Certainly, as a therapist, language is everything. My patients’ language is the lens through which I begin to understand their idiosyncratic universes. It is used not only to express, but also to shield, making our intentions and inner worlds opaque, protecting us from revealing too much to others and to ourselves. R.D. Laing called these processes ‘knots’.
But there is comfort in the familiarity of old patterns, and there is safety in ambiguity. Empson argued there’s poetry in it, too; in fact, he went so far as to propose that ambiguity is what makes poetry poetic.
As a songwriter, I don’t fall far from the tree of my occupational passions. The latest Matt Stalker & Fables record, Knots, is a series of character pieces, each exploring a strange or difficult relationship between two people. It is inspired by Laing’s writings about the catalytic role of family schisms in the development of mental illness, and about the ‘functional’ aspects of psychoses (he likened episodes to shamanic journeys of self-discovery). Songs discuss ideas such as the peculiar sense of competition felt with the deceased when dating a widow, or the loving parent staying with their child as they descend into psychosis to try to understand. I laboured on those lyrics, aiming for both precision and poetry.
An advantage of setting words to music is its power to conjure the requisite emotional hue with chords and melody; time signatures impose rhythm; verses and refrains provide structure. Songs are not just poems set to music, as anyone who’s ever read aloud the lyrics of a much-loved song knows – without their music songs can seem infantile, clunky, or even cringeworthy.
A poet friend of mine explained to me how the music in a poem comes from its prosody, from the sounds, meanings, and associations of the words chosen, from punctuation, line breaks, meter, rhyme. The music is inherent to the poem, and requires no accompaniment. Composing and performing songs and poems are related but actually very different skills, as I realised when I set out to write without music.
I really felt deskilled by it at first. I resolved to stop trying to write and I read instead. I delved back into my poetry collections: Armitage, Plath, Donaghy, Heaney, Hadfield, and my treasured copy of the slim but excellent How to Write Poetry free with the Guardian in 2008. I was repeatedly struck by the difference between the forms, and by the ability of good poets to be expansive in their ideas whilst economic and precise with their language. It also occurred to me how awkwardly the poems would scan if set to music.
Trying to take this learning and put it into my own poems has been a challenging and fascinating opportunity to understand more about the art of poetry as distinct from songwriting, and to find yet another way in which language can play a role in my life.
I’ll be debuting my poems at Live Theatre on Thursday 30 October, interspersing them between songs, as if to highlight just how different the two are.
Matt will be performing alongside Breton poet Claire Trévien on Thursday 30 October as part of a double bill of poetry, performance and music. Claire will be performing her début solo show The Shipwrecked House, which blends poetry with theatre and a shifting maritime landscape.
Prior to the evening show Claire is hosting a practical two hour poetry workshop in the Theatre’s Gallery at 4pm for those interested in exploring the theme of ‘home’. Writing Home is aimed at writers and performers who are interested in exploring lyrical expression and honing their writing craft.
Tickets for Claire Trevien & Matt Stalker cost £8 full price and £6 concessions with tickets for Claire’s Writing Home workshop costing £10 (including admission to the evening performance). Tickets can be booked now by contacting Live Theatre’s box office on (0191) 232 1232 or by visiting www.live.org.uk.
This article was written for Live Theatre by Matt Stalker