The young man and woman with an acoustic guitar take their places on the small stage at Whitman College on the Princeton University campus. It’s a workshop-type situation — raw work lights, curtain blacks, and a few chairs.
Then after a few seconds in quiet Nandita Rao and David Li start singing softly, “You’re just a memory that’s starting to fade. And I’m starting to lose the lines on your face.”
When the two finish with the line that gives the song its name, “Waiting for you,” they return to the quiet. It hangs momentarily but is soon dispelled by the applause of the two-dozen fellow students enrolled in “How to Write a Song,” a course dubbed “something between a class and a seminar.”
“Our basic input is to use our collective talents on behalf of the song. It is our only impulse — in service to the song,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon, who leads this hybrid class that fuses creative writing and popular music.
Listed as “an introduction to the art of writing words for music, an art at the core of almost every literary tradition from Homer through Beowulf to W.B Yeats and beyond,” the course uses assignments based on popular song traditions and requires auditions and commitment.
“We meet every Tuesday for three hours, get in groups, and write a different song each week. We are given an emotion as a prompt, and it varies,” says Muldoon while another of the constantly changing pairings of students occurs as they prepare to test a song — one that may end up in the final presentation, a concert on Tuesday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Frist Campus Center.
Muldoon says that this day’s session is devoted to songs about loss and depression and that the writing process involves “thinking and not thinking together,” a way of making choices while allowing the work to present itself.
During the session the poet demonstrates that sense of non-certainty, noting in discussions, “That’s a hard thing to judge, and I don’t know the answer,” or saying after a song, “I am not sure what the words are at all. But it doesn’t matter. I got what it was about without hearing any of the words.”
In past interviews he elaborates more on the approach: “When I teach I tell my students, ‘what we want to really work on now is what you don’t know: the condition of not knowing.’ There are many people who write poems who’ve not got their heads around this idea, and who actually think that they know what they’re doing. I really believe that the minute one thinks one knows what one’s doing — actually, in any department of life — one’s probably making a terrible mistake. That’s the most difficult thing to teach and the most difficult thing to learn. It’s very tempting for us to think we know what we’re doing.”
After the students share their thoughts during a critique and discussion about what immediately struck them in “Waiting,” Muldoon talks to the performers about presentation and says, “The combination of the voices was beautiful, but it was too quiet.”
When Nandita Rao replies “I’m shy,” the poet encouragingly leans forward and answers softly, “Oh, don’t. Be confident,” putting into practice his hope to create, as he says “a place to feel safe and comfortable.”
“What a lovely start,” he says of this day’s class as the couple leaves the stage.
The Irish-born Muldoon, 63, is the author of a dozen collections of poetry and serves as the poetry editor for the New Yorker. He is also a lyricist and performer with the band Wayside Shrines and the author of the 2013 book “The Word on the Street: Rock Lyrics,” dedicated to two of his musical heroes: Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen.
About the class, Muldoon says, “I started the class because I sensed there’d be an interest among the students. I knew there were many talented songwriters associated with the Triangle Club, for example, and it’s been a delight to realize that there are many more operating undercover. The students are breathtakingly talented, and it’s been a joy to work with them. I think the students are struck by the fact that their work is taken seriously. They’re reminded, too, that work is what we’re talking about. It’s clear that each week they give everything they’ve got to the process of writing the words and lyrics to a song, and then performing it.”
He also shares his own connection to poetry and song and says, “One of the first poems I learnt by heart was Yeats’s ‘The Late Isle of Innis Free,’ a piece I delivered at a local festival when I was seven or eight years of age. I’m particularly drawn to verse that has some musicality. Yeats, like many Irish poets, is interested in both poetry and song. That’s partly from where my own interest derives.”
In an American Academy of Poets interview Muldoon says more about the topic. “In many societies, the poem that was sung, recited to the accompaniment of a lyre (as in lyric) or some similar instrument, a harp of some kind, was commonplace. In my own first culture — if we could call it that — in Irish culture, the earliest poets were singing their poems to the accompaniment of harps. So there’s that component where the two are closely related, on one hand. The other side, of course, is that though they are similar in many ways, in many cultures, at many times, they’re actually trying to do somewhat different things. So a song lyric by Leonard Cohen may coincidentally be published in his ‘Collected Poems’ and yet be rather steadfastly a song lyric. It needs something else. It may be recited as a poem, but for one reason or another, it’s missing something. The poem conventionally brings its own music.”
Acoustic guitarists Bryan Jacobowitz and Charlie Baker, along with vocalist and violinist Deanna Zhu, take the Whitman stage for “Lullaby.” Her plaintive voice says to an invisible child, “I’m more tired than you, my darling, you’ve taken it out of me, I’m spent, but I love you, don’t I? Is this how it’s meant to be?”
A discussion immediately follows about the power of the situation and the thematic use of postpartum depression, a subject with which the students had no actual experience and used testaments found on the Internet.
Citing the dramatic material and the discordance used when the violin simulates a baby’s cry, Muldoon says, “It is very bold and very daring. It could go bad. And those lines, ‘I’m spent, but I love you” — it’s beautiful.” Then he follows up another’s student’s point about ambiguity of voice and says, “Ambiguity is great as long as it is consistent. Somehow it is not clear.” He and the students then explore solutions.
Muldoon approaches the work as he approaches his own writing, and as he says in print, “I honestly don’t think of myself as the writer of the poems. I think about myself as having very little to do with the poems or the songs. Obviously, they reflect something of me . . . with any luck, they are writing themselves. On a good day, they’d be writing themselves. I know it sounds a bit corny, but it goes back to . . . the unconscious. And it’s one of the things I try to teach my students actually.”
And elsewhere he adds, “I often describe myself as a construction worker . . . there are patterns, which these structures follow. Songs are very similar from one to the next in their structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse. The majority of them are built like that. Just as a car has two seats in the back and two in the front. That’s the basic idea, upon which there can be many variations.
“Most poets these days, as you know, are not interested in rhyme. It may once have interested them but they’re no longer interested in it. It’s virtually impossible to write a song without rhyme. It’s impossible. So immediately, one’s in a very different ball game: a set of constraints built into it immediately that you don’t find in a poem. You can happily be a poet without thinking about rhyme, or without thinking about prosody — what happens in a line. That would be a significant distinction between the two. I’m much more interested in the points in which they’re similar rather than dissimilar.”
Talking about finding solutions, he says, “If (a poem) doesn’t work, there’s always something else. It’s not the end of the world if the world of the poem doesn’t work — it’s just a poem. The hope is that it might be interesting.”
Brandon Sixto, Elizabeth Romanzi, and Sydney King now follow with “Dispairing,” a song about couples breaking up or “dis pairing” It’s a song that also involves playing in a band and uses words such as “covers” and “disbanding.”
“We didn’t say a word, and jammed and then we started rolling on it and made a list of words,” says one of the team. The poet nods and says to the class, “Great idea to allow your mind to wander all of it. Arm yourself with a rhyming dictionary.”
Further discussion about the bluesy style brings up a consideration: why not try some percussion? They give it a try with a hand shaker and decide the original approach seemed best.
“Phosphoresce” — Pam Soffer, Julia Peiperl, and Keji Xu’s song of a person in a shift of mental states — follows. “The title comes alive without being mentioned,” says a listener. Muldoon agrees and adds, “The (song’s) bridge is very effective. It takes the system of the song and carries it consistently. It gives it a sense of that is ‘how it is’ in the song.” The discussion again turns to percussion and how it sometimes overpowers rather than supports the expression.
A few seconds later Angelo Campus, Chris Snider, and Keelan Smithers fill the stage with “Calm Before the Storm,” a work they say is based on the happy mental state a person exhibits before committing suicide. The song builds from a jazz-inspired electric bass line and a student providing percussive voice. Class members call it “haunting” and discuss the unusual structure. “It does seem to develop naturally,” says Muldoon, who adds that the song seems “an embodiment of an emotional state.”
Muldoon talks often about the creation of poems and songs and says, “Each song is a new event, and in a strange way, almost nothing that one brings from one situation and circumstance will stand you in good stead in the next. And yet sort of everything’s feeding into it, all of the music one’s listened to in one’s life, one’s sense of the structure of many popular songs. Whether one has intellectualized that, or if it’s just in your blood and in your bones.”
The need for a piano necessitates a move to an upstairs room, and the session quickly continues in the club-like room but with a noticeably different approach. Where folk or folk-rock seemed the general approach, contemporary show and film songs seemed the inspiration.
First up is “Wake” by Korleki Akiti, Stephanie Liu, and Bobby Ullman. It’s a song to a person who is dying and “trapped inside, no way to break out, you’re a phantom of the one I knew.”
Muldoon says that the students are effectively dealing with something intractable and suggests that it can be enhanced by finding a sharper focus that would drive it more.
“Too Far” by guitarist Christian Perry, pianist Ben Tien, and singer Natalie Tung uses two returning passages and the affecting phrase, “Haunting me from 4,000 miles away.”
As the song finishes, Muldoon says nothing as the students follow the established pattern of affirming, exploring, and saying: “It sounded great.” “I like the sections where it didn’t rhyme,” “the chorus is simple and powerful at the same time.”
Muldoon says his tapering off during class is because the participants are motivated. “They do it themselves. Sometimes, if you teach you have to” — he then mimics kicking someone.
A piano passage opens Ofer Kimchi, Yolanda Yeh, and Arjun Dube’s “I (Still) Can’t Get Started,” based on a jazz ballad of a similar name. The approach uses two separate monologues that become a dialogue and then end in unison. Muldoon recognizes the stage quality and recommends performance techniques, such as pausing before saying a charged word to give it more impact. An open discussion points to an inconsistency in the lines and how they can be fixed.
The session’s final piece is appropriately “Swan Song” by Jason Kim, Matt Barouch, and Taylor Tutrone. The rock-ballad supported by piano, guitar, and a table used as drum creates a mood and students simulate concert practices (swaying and raising illuminated cellphones). A student responds with, “The whole vibe reminded me of the Greenday album ‘21st Century Breakdown.’” Others agreed.
Among Muldoon’s comments about what makes a song works, he says, “You can have ideas in song that rise above the banalities of most rock lyrics. You’ve only got to look at ballads, blues, country music, much rap, to see examples of humor and high intelligence that really connect with listeners.”
And today he adds some thoughts about a song’s ability to be accessible and engaging. “There’s nothing wrong with being entertaining and popular. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Concert of songs from “How To Write A Song” with Paul Muldoon, Frist Theater in the Frist Campus Center, Princeton University. Tuesday, April 28, 7:30 p.m. Free. arts.princeton.edu/events/concert-of-new-songs.