Sarah Kanowski’s conversation with musician Paul Kelly, for ABC Radio National, is an engaging encounter with one of Australia’s most highly regarded songwriters. Of particular interest are Kelly’s comments about the craft of writing songs based on poems, which has become a central aspect of his songwriting. I think, for example, of Seven Sonnets and a Song (2016), an album which comprises six songs based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, one based on the Clown’s Song from Twelfth Night, and one based on a poem by Sir Philip Sidney. Then there’re the songs of Spring and Fall (2012), Nature (2018), and Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds (2019), which draw on the poems of Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Miroslav Holub, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Richard Wilbur, and WB Yeats – and, closer to home, Denis Glover, Gwen Harwood, AD Hope, and Judith Wright. Most recently, Penguin Books has published Love is Strong as Death (2019), an anthology of poems chosen by Kelly. It’s evidence of his wide-ranging and abiding engagement with poetry.
Based on Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 73’
Kelly’s comments about discovering poetry during his high school years particularly resonated with me, as I attended the same high school, albeit a few decades later. It was in the same classrooms that I found my own interest in the poetry of Keats, Hopkins, Harwood, Wright, and others. Until only a few decades ago, I suspect that much of Adelaide had no more than two or three degrees of separation from Kelly and his family. Though it’s matured into an elegant and cosmopolitan mid-sized city, Adelaide still has about it some of the charm (for better and/or worse) of a big country-town. I certainly grew up with family members who knew Kelly’s siblings or were at school with Kelly himself. Naturally, his music seeped in through the seams of my childhood and adolescence.
Based on Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mushrooms’
In the course of the conversation, Kelly also talks about (among other things) the influence of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on his work, his affection for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (‘conversational and warm’), and his memory of sharing his earliest poems with family members (‘kind of shy and proud … at the same time’). He’s sanguine about poetry’s place in our modern world (it’s ‘on the march’). It’s a hospitable conversation about poetry, borne out of Kelly’s generous regard for it. The conversation ends with Kelly playing his song ‘Barn Owl’, based on Gwen Harwood’s poem of the same name, and ‘Pied Beauty’, based on the poem by Hopkins.