Strange (Re)Invention: Recycling Poetry as Song

Mike Scott reads aloud from a book during a Wa...

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I was listening to Radio 4’s Front Row last week (<– showing off) and discovered that the singer/songwriter of The WaterboysMike Scott, has created a new album using the poetry of W. B. Yeats. It’s called “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” and while I only heard snippets, they were interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve been trying to form an opinion on this ever since.

What I found particulary interesting was that Mike Scott had waited particularly for W. B. Yeats poetry to come out of copyright before he made the record. This was on account of the fact that he was re-arranging the lines in Yeats’ poems to suit his verse. Which in itself begs the question of whether it was right, or fair, to do so. My gut tells me this was a little bit sneaky, but then in order to stick to his creative vision there was no other way to go about it without risking a lawsuit. But equally, I can see where the Yeats estate is coming from: the words of W.B. Yeats were protected from tampering and suchlike, and they obviously want to protect what is obviously considered to be very valuable intellectual property – but there is nothing they can do once the work is out of copyright. Like it or not, Scott is completely within his rights to edit Yeats poetry.

And so: is Mike Scott’s work original or is at an adaptation?

As I’ve said above, ‘An Appointment with Mr Yeats’ is Mike Scott’s creative vision. It is his hard work which has produced the melodies, arrangements and all other production that goes into making an album. The words, though, are – certainly were – Yeats’. In this way, Scott’s work is similar to that of musicians such as Keith James, whose efforts to re-imagine the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca include setting it to music. The music is, of course, James’ own imagining, and the lyrics that he chooses (both Spanish and English) are Lorca’s.

By rearranging the words of W.B. Yeats, though, Scott is doing something quite different, and it is this that the Yeats estate objected to and the reason Scott had to wait so long before he could complete (and significantly; release) his work. If Scott recycles Yeats’ words and re-arranges them, they are no longer the works of Yeats in the form that they were written – although they may still be recognisable. In fact, given that Scott makes no attempt to hide his creative efforts as a combination of his and Yeats’ creative influence, it is almost impossible for a listener to not pick out Yeats’ words.

But are they still Yeats’ words? Once re-arranged, the poetry is not Yeats’ own. It is implausible to suggest that the words cannot be used by Scott because Yeats used them first; if that were the case we would need to invent a new language every time any of us spoke or wrote anything – from a tiny text message to a epic ballad. We are re-using and recycling language all the time; language that famous dead poets and writers used, and language that our friends have used casually. We copy what others say, and we modify and rephrase so often, that we can never lay claim to that words that we use when out of context. By re-arranging Yeats’ poems, I would argue therefore that Scott’s work is merely that: a recycling of language that has already been used many times before.

So Scott’s work is clearly not plagiarism. But is it fair? Legally, yes. But perhaps morally, from the point of view of the Yeats estate, it is not. The words out of order are merely words, it is the creative effort put into creating the order of those words as poetry which is the intellectual property protected by copyright. And yet, Scott makes no claim to own the words or the poetry – this is clear by the title of the album ‘An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’ does nothing to disguise the fact that these are Yeats’ words set to Scott’s music. Sometime out of order, yes, but firmly contextualised as a modern revival or re-imagining of classic texts. Scott lays claim, as he should, to the music he has put the poetry to – and in this way his work is entirely fair. It could be argued that morally Scott is being very fair, he has waited until he is able to make his changes without damaging Yeats’ estate – and that’s as fair as you can get under the copyright law.

I would still argue that Scott has done much more than merely set Yeats’ poetry to music, but I think that he is still very much within his legal and moral rights to do so. His work is considered, the music is compelling, and he has broadly acknowledged the source of his lyrics. In fact, it is almost refreshing to see the creative influence that a poet such as Yeats’ is still having. Scott is not merely discussing Yeats’ influence on him, but displaying it in a manner befitting of the creative arts: he is letting us experience it.

On a personal level, as someone who attempts to write, I think recycling of language is something I have trouble coming to terms with. Of course, I am widely influenced, and I want to borrow a certain turn of phrase from time to time – but the desire to be totally original often stops me. I think what’s interesting for me in this case is that I couldn’t decide whether Scott was being totally original. His music is certainly original. But the lyrics not. They are re-worked, but nonetheless they have been heard before.

But saying that, haven’t we all heard things before. I think the work of a writer is to make these familiar thing unfamiliar again, and stay at arm’s length from cliche, but in this case Scott is not claiming to be a writer, he is claiming to be a musician and so his work is valid and original. If I were to re-order John Donne‘s words (for example), that wouldn’t be original, but if I were to use the language in a way that is relevant to me, then that would.

What do you think? Is Scott’s work original? Is it valid? Can writer’s feasibly re-use the words of other writers and make them their own?

One thought on “Strange (Re)Invention: Recycling Poetry as Song

  1. Pingback: Hiding from the Creeps « Write on the World

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