Poetry on Vinyl: Ernest Hilbert’s Elegies and Laments
What would it sound like if a book of poetry had its own musical score, like a film, written specifically to match the poems line for line and word for word?
So begins the liner notes booklet that comes with poet and critic Ernest Hilbert’s LP, Elegies & Laments, which was released in a limited-edition pressing of 100 copies back in 2012.
Ernest, Ernie, is a good friend. We are both South Jersey boys, both went to Rutgers-Camden, and are both poetry and music nerds. Ernie’s a a real renaissance man, a rare book dealer, and bon vivant. To hear Ernie hold forth about metal metal bands of all varieties — hair, death, speed, thrash, parody, glam — is one of my life’s immense pleasures.
It wasn’t that big of a surprise, then, to hear from Ernie about his plans to put out a record to go along with Sixty Sonnets, his 2009 debut collection from Red Hen Press.
What was surprising? The production value. This is not just a recording of Hilbert reading or performing poems. This is a music and poetry collaboration, produced by Dave Young and Marc Hildenberger, with orchestral composition by Christopher LaRosa. Sixteen poems feature over the course of four tracks, backed by the band Legendary Misbehavior and several string players. The record itself, a beautiful white-colored disc, sounds beautiful through my Technics 1200 turntable.
Part One, “Failed Escapes,” features a kind of overture of famous spoken word and poetry snippets — Sylvia Plath, others — under a bed of transistor radio squelch sounds, and leads into the first four Hilbert poems. The remaining tracks pull off similar experiments, and even feature guest readers Paul Siegell, Quincy R. Lehr, and Kristine Young.
One question, when it comes to music combined with poetry performances, is if the music will overpower the poetry. There’s always the chance the music will drown out the vocals in the mix, or the music won’t really complement the poetry itself. Or, frankly, the music is more interesting than the poems. In Elegies & Laments, the music and poetry work together magically well, miraculously well. It’s a legitimate collaboration. The photos inside the liner notes show Hilbert drinking a beer at a studio console, watching the musicians lay down bass and guitar tracks, and smoking a cigarette on a rooftop with the Philadelphia skyline in the background.
As with many things related to Ernie, I’m jealous I didn’t think of doing something like this first. Rounding up musician friends and colleagues to put together a musical score for a poetry book? It sounds like such a simple idea, at least now that Hilbert has done it. Here’s hoping more poets experiment with music with their poetry. And please: put out a vinyl record, so I can fill my house with more records.
This originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog.