Even though I taught English at the high school, the subject of literature would seldom come up when I met with my main friends there. Being football coaches, most of our discussions concerned that particular sport or others that are popular in our culture.
One of the two physical education teachers on our coaching staff happened to glance at a stack of papers I had placed on the desk in the football office. The contents were poems my students had been assigned to write, so the obviously bored gym teacher decided to read the first one aloud.
We kind of chuckled at his exaggerated elocution, and after two or three poems he gave up the enterprise. His confession afterward would not have surprised me now, but my idealistic younger self back then found it nearly incredible.
“The only poem I can recite even a single line of is the one they use in that song,” he said. “That one by the Moody Blues.”
He had not needed to provide the first words of it, “Breathe deep the gathering gloom”, in order for me to know he was talking about Nights In White Satin. Had he been a more avid fan of that band, he could have used Painted Smile, a lesser known song from their Long Distance Voyager album.
The Moody Blues successfully accomplished the feat twice, but other artists have also managed to insert original poems into their songs. The most famous example is Jim Morrison, who wrote and recited An American Prayer on the Doors album with the same title.
Bassist Joe Puerta of Ambrosia wrote a poem that he recites to introduce his song Cowboy Star on the album Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, and Ricky Wilson of the Kasiser Chiefs wrote a two verse piece in 2014 to close out Cannons from the Education, Education, Education and War album.
Occasionally artists have decided to take a poem already in our literary history and translated it into a song. Here are four classic poems that have been recorded as songs by popular artists.
Folk singer Phil Ochs put an acoustic touch to this Alfred Noyes poem, resulting in a track from the I Ain’t Marching Anymore album.
This eerie epic poem by Edgar Allan Poe was made more cheerful by the jingling rhythm of Ochs’s guitar on a song from All The News That’s a Fit To Sing.
Nice Nice Very Nice
The prog rock quartet Ambrosia turned some verse of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. into the opening track from their debut album, adding a catchy chorus and a chaotic but delightful musical bridge.
Under the Greenwood Tree
Shakespeare has been an obvious influence to writers of all genre, and folk rock singer Donovan transformed this sonnet of the Bard’s into a lovely track on the Wear Your Love Like Heaven album.