Listen: Paul Kelly chats to Katrina Roe
By Clare BruceMonday 3 Feb 2020Hope Mornings
With over 20 studio albums under his belt, Paul Kelly’s a household name when it comes to singing and songwriting – but did you know he’s a fine reader of poetry, too?
Not only has he just released a poetry anthology (titled Love is Strong as Death), he’s also recorded an ARIA winning album in which he performs the works of famous poets, set to music – and is now taking that album on the road in a live tour.
Titled 13 Ways to Look at Birds, the show is made up of poems about birdlife – by poetry greats such as John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manly Hopkins and Judith Wright.
“Poetry’s been a companion for me ever since my teens… lines from poems have sort of snuck into some of my songs right from the start.”
With his musical beginnings in the folk music tradition, poetry was always an integral part of Paul Kelly’s singing and songwriting. Chatting to Katrina Roe, Kelly said he “fell in love” with poetry as a school student, studying works like Shakespeare’s sonnets, and John Keats’ famous Ode to a Nightingale – which makes an appearance in the show.
“Poetry’s been a companion for me ever since my teens,” he said. “And it’s also informed my songs. Lines from poems have sort of snuck into some of my songs right from the start.
“A lot of poems are short… I’ve always gravitated towards the short form I guess; that’s why I became a songwriter and not a novelist. I also like the concision of poetry, and how it condenses, compresses language into something memorable.
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“In fact one of the best definitions I’ve heard of poetry, is, ‘poetry’s just memorable speech’. That’s why it probably arose in the first place among humans… it was a way to pass on knowledge in a memorable form.”
Why a Show About Bird Poetry?
The idea of a show about bird poetry seems a quirky one at first – but upon a closer look, lends itself to incredible variety, entertainment and artistry. Originally the pianist Anna Goldsworthy thought they should focus on poems about animals, but there were way too many; they narrowed it down to birds alone.
“Birds have always resonated strongly with poets and poetry,” Kelly said. “Birds have been part of myths, birds were used as omens and ‘auguries’ in ancient times, birds symbolise freedom and hope… so poets have been writing about birds for a long, long time.”
Performed live, some of the poems sound very song-like; others sound more artful and abstract. Kelly said the show has many things to enjoy at any moment – from the eclectic composition and haunting electric guitar effects of James Ledger, the voice of Alice Keath, the precision of Anna Goldsworthy’s Seraphim trio, and of course the singing and pondering of Paul Kelly himself.
“There’s always something to watch, it’s a beautiful experience. You can just experience it without trying to understand it.”
“There’s always something to watch, it’s a beautiful experience,” he said. “You can just experience it without trying to understand it.”
For those who aren’t accustomed to reading poetry, Kelly says it’s worth trying: “I’d just encourage people to have fun with poetry,” he said. “If you find a poem not speaking to you, turn the page, find another poet, and not to be afraid of it.”
The live show 13 Ways to Look at Birds comes to the Sydney Collisseum Theatre on Februrary 29. For your chance to win tickets, listen to Katrina Roe on Hope Mornings between 9am and 12pm from Monday February 3 to Wednesday February 5.