Lessons from Lightfoot: Poetry Inspired By Music
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Music has been an inspiration to me as a writer for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’ve tackled any writing project, it is usually the first thing I think about. What songs remind me of the storyline I’m setting up? What kinds of music would this character listen to? It’s the way that I get to know my subjects and develop my stories.
Both of my books take place in very specific historical eras, but since we’re almost in the middle of National Poetry Month, I want to focus on my chapbook, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime. Using a series of linked persona poems, it tells the story of the 1965 murder of sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens, who died after months of torture and abuse from a group of her peers.
I was instantly haunted by Sylvia from the moment I learned of her tragic story, and I knew that I needed to write about it, but I wasn’t sure how. My inspiration came during a poetry workshop I took during graduate school, where I began to explore the story from the perspective of the women involved with the case. It started from just Sylvia’s perspective, but gradually, other characters entered the story, including the perpetrators themselves.
My writing process involved a great deal of research. I looked at photos of the teenagers and children who were complicit in her death in yearbooks, read the archive of newspaper articles centered around the trial and discovery of the crime, and perused pages and pages of legal documents and court transcripts. But there was one tool above all others that gave me a direct window into the minds and experiences of these women: the music they would have listened to. As I listened to the hit songs of 1964 and 1965 and uncovered some lesser known tracks of the era, I started to imagine what they would have meant to Sylvia and the people in her life. I imagined her and the teenage girls she initially saw as friends singing along with “Leader of the Pack,” tried to guess what her favorite Beatles song might have been, and sometimes, I even looked at the few photos we have of her and heard songs as the background music. As part of the book’s release, I also created a Spotify playlist for the book so readers could experience the characters’ music for themselves. Of course, not all poets write persona pieces. But no matter what kind of poetry you write, music can serve as an example and source of inspiration for putting your ideas on paper.
To discuss this further, I want to turn to one of the masters of poetic lyrics: Gordon Lightfoot. Fun fact: Gordon Lightfoot wrote songs besides the iconic smash hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” so we’re not going to talk about that one. Instead, let’s look as his other nautical disaster song: “The Ballad of the Yarmouth Castle.”
The song is based on the wreck of the Yarmouth Castle, a cruise ship traveling from Miami to Nassau, which caught fire in the early hours of November 13, 1965. Nearly forty years old, the ship was primarily crafted from wood and other flammable materials and lacked adequate sprinkler systems and safety procedures.
The firehoses were old and lacked sufficient water pressure. There was no way to alert the passengers of the danger. By the time the fire was discovered, it was too late to do anything. It raged out of control, until the burned-out carcass of the ship sank a few hours later. 87 people died at sea. Three were hospitalized and later died from severe burns. It still ranks as the worst disaster to occur in North American waters. While it isn’t as culturally significant as “Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Yarmouth Castle” is a vastly superior song. The former primarily tells the story of the wreck using narrative devices, but “Yarmouth Castle” goes a step further with its even more inventive use of poetic devices and point of view to put listeners right in the middle of the event. Before you move on, take a minute to click the link below and listen to the song.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Welcome back. I’m sure you have a lot of thoughts. What makes this song so unique is that its focus isn’t on the obvious choice of the passengers who died in the fire or the crew, although they make appearances (most notably, the captain, who deserted the ship with passengers still on board). Its primary subject is the ship itself.
Using personification, Lightfoot deftly puts listeners into the Yarmouth Castle’s life experience. She is portrayed as having seen much better days, giving a “groan of protest” as she heads to sea and wearing a coat of new paint “to keep her young” and cover any evidence of age. The use of personification is given greater weight when the lyrics cinematically cut to the action on the ship. Oblivious to the fire growing in the hull, passengers dance, drink, and play cards, much to the ship’s despair as she gives a cry for help.
"Oh Lord," she groans, "I'm burning!" "Let someone understand!" But her silent plea is wasted In the playin' of the band.
What Lightfoot accomplishes in this song is astonishing. He doesn’t just tell the story of the fire. He does it from an omniscient perspective that primarily centers on a personified object and makes us deeply sympathetic toward the situation as a result. It’s not just an ingenious way to tell the story; it’s great poetry. Personally, I tend to go super dark with the stuff that inspires me as a writer, so it doesn’t surprise me that I picked this song as an illustration. However, it doesn’t matter what kinds of songs or genres of music you like. Music is a great place to start if you’re looking for inspiration for a poem. Here are a few prompts for getting ideas from favorite songs: 1) Using “Yarmouth Castle” as a model, write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object that has a lot of contact with other people. What is its environment like and what are its attitudes toward its existence? 2) Read the lyrics and listen to a song that you admire. Then, write a poem that models some aspect of the song. It might be the emotion that it evokes, a memory you associate with it, or a particular way of using language that you think is neat and want to try.
3) Not all songs have deep, poetic lyrics, of course. Find a song that is pretty bland or superficial and rewrite it as a poem that has greater literary depth. As a result, “MmmBop” by Hanson could become a commentary on the transient nature of life relationships, while “It’s Gonna Be Me” could be about the desire to possess something that is currently beyond your reach.
Or, it could be about springtime…because in a few weeks…well, you know. 4) In 1952, country singer Kitty Wells wrote her famous song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” as a rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” which blamed loose women in bars for men’s misery.
Wells’s song, a feminist anthem for the 1950s, is pretty hard hitting, quickly revealing the flaws in his argument and showing that men only have themselves to blame for their situation. Take a song that you don’t agree with or even just don’t like and write a poem in response that shows your objections.
Want even more ideas for poems?
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ve released The Ultimate Poetry Workbook, which contains prompts, tips, and tools to jumpstart your creativity.
It’s the perfect tool for writing more poems this month, especially if you’re just getting started. Grab a copy here.