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Natalie Merchant sings poetry. But does that make it new and improved?

April 13, 2010 |  1:58 pm

Natalie Merchant on Tuesday releases the album "Leave Your Sleep," 26 poems set to music. She's been working on the project for six years and will bring it to Los Angeles on April 20. She previewed the tracks in a polished performance at the TED conference in February.

After the first song, names and photos of the poets flashed on the screen: Charles E. Carryl, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, Edward Lear. "Ghosts, right? Have nothing to say to us. Obsolete. Gone," Merchant said. But she wasn't finished. "Not so."

She sees her project as a resurrection. "What I've really enjoyed about this project is reviving these people's words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life," she said.

From one perspective, this is admirable. Who remembers Nathalia Crane, or her the 1927 book that her poem "The Janitor's Boy" came from? Maybe now, with Merchant's swinging bluesy tune of it, someone will look it up.

But. 

What poet sees his or her work as being written for "dead flat pages"? Most poems are written for the page, and many poems use the page layout as part of their expression. That would include the work of e.e. cummings, one of the poets whose work Merchant has set to music.

Seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty, but that doesn't make them new and improved. It transmutes them as lyrics, but it would be a mistake to think this improves on their original form.

As for resurrection, the work of the better-known writers in Merchant's collection is still very much alive. Stevenson's "Kidnapped" is at the center of a talk Thursday at the Library of Congress by A. Roger Ekirch, author of the new book "Birthright: The True Story That Inspired 'Kidnapped.' " And Britain's former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion has announced he will write a sequel to Stevenson's classic "Treasure Island."

Flat pages? Sure. Dead pages? Maybe not.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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