Great Poets Whose Words Inspired Songs

Tim Kinsella
Tim Kinsella

Tim Kinsella, the Chicago-based musician who accidentally helped invent what we know as emo while cutting his teeth in bands like Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc, just released one of the more interesting collaborations he’s done since the ’90s. Tim Kinsella Sings The Songs Of Marvin Tate By LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen finds Kinsella and ex-Wilco member LeRoy Bach setting the poems of fellow Chicago native Marvin Tate to music. And fear not, emo kids, they’re all pretty damn sad.

Kinsella and Bach aren’t the first musicians to lend their talents to preexisting poems. In fact, we could have compiled a list featuring hundreds of singers who have quoted writers, but we tried to reel it in. For time’s sake, you can check out four of our favorite music and poetry connections after the jump. And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of TKSTSOMTBLBFAO. Its title may be a mouthful, but its tracks are beautifully short, simple, and sparse, perfectly complimenting Tate’s stark and sometimes abrasive words.

1. Vladimir Nabokov and The Menzingers
Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov may be most famous for penning Lolita, but it’s Pale Fire, his 1962 novel/999-line poem, that featured what is likely Nabokov’s most well-known couplet:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane

Definitely the most beautiful thing that anyone has ever written about birds flying into windows. Anyway, Scranton, PA’s The Menzingers quoted those lines almost verbatim during the bridge of “The Obituaries,” and while the rest of the song’s lyrical content has little to do with Pale Fire, the emotional impact of Nabokov’s words aren’t lessened at all. In fact, they compliment the track so well, it seems that the writer may have missed out on his calling as a punk lyricist.

2.  Various Poets and La Dispute
The first two EP’s from La Dispute‘s Here, Hear series take poems and passages from other writers and set them to music. On the first, the band explores the writing of Tom Robbins, Edgar Allan Poe, and E.E. Cummings, while the second EP includes the Myth of Sisyphus and a passage from Kenneth Grahame‘s The Wind in the Willows. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a children’s tale about rodents set to experimental music, you absolutely need to check out this series.

3. Walt Whitman and The Lonely Forest
It makes sense for a band that calls itself The Lonely Forest to be fans of a naturalist poet like Walt Whitman, especially when so many of the lyrics penned by frontman John Van Deusen are about mountains, evergreens, and lakes. “I sing the body electric,” a line from the New York poet’s Leaves of Grass, is both the title of a Lonely Forest full-length and a line in the song “We Sing in Time” (though the band does change the line to We sing the body electric).

According to Van Deusen, few are able to convey the spiritual experience of communing with nature quite like Whitman did, but Lonely Forest songs do a pretty good job of capturing the feeling.

5. Charles Bukowski and… everyone
Few poets “ maybe no other poets at all, actually “ have had an impact on everything from art to pop culture to bad tattoos quite like Charles Bukowski. The prolific writer and eventual bitter old man who found a way to speak so profoundly about liquor and sex has inspired countless songs by a variety of hyper-popular musicians. Possibly because musicians “ who knew? “ also enjoy booze and sex.

Tom Waits frequently calls Bukowski an influence, and has said that the poet inspired his song “Frank’s Wild Years.” The Good Life namedrop Chuck in “Album of the Year,” while the Red Hot Chili Peppers give him a nod in “Mellowship Slinky in B Major.” Hell, even Bono is into him. But for my money, it’s Modest Mouse‘s aptly-titled “Bukowski” that really captures the writer best. “God, who’d want to be such an asshole?

Oh, and La Dispute included a Bukowski poem in their Here, Hear series, too. Because of course.


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