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Kate Wakeling on Music and Poetry

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Kate Wakeling is a poet and ethnomusicologist. She studied music at Cambridge University and holds a PhD in Balinese gamelan music from the School of Oriental & African Studies. As writer-in-residence with Aurora Orchestra, Kate is co-creator of the acclaimed Far Far Away series of children’s storytelling concerts, and her scripts and stories for the orchestra have featured at venues and festivals across the UK and beyond. Her poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Oxford Poetry, the Guardian and The Forward Book of Poetry 2016, and a pamphlet of her poetry for adults, The Rainbow Faults, is published by The Rialto.

For me, a sprinkling of music is the secret ingredient to writing. You don’t always know it’s there, but musical thinking works all sorts of magic on a piece of text, especially a poem. Perhaps like a nicely-browned bit of onion in a stew? Because when I think about what makes a piece of writing tick for me, it’s almost always the sound of the chosen words – their hum and buzz, the way they chime and bounce together. As something of a lapsed musician, I think this is why poetry feels such a fit for me. More than any other kind of literature, poetry is aimed at the ears. And because of this, I think both music and poetry have something really special to offer in supporting children’s literacy.

My own rather knobbly path into writing is strewn with music. I didn’t really start writing seriously till my late twenties, and before then pretty much everything I did was music-based. I played the flute (with much anxious diligence) as a child. Then I went on to study music at university and from there spent a number of years researching Balinese gamelan music (an amazing percussion ensemble of bronze and bamboo percussion instruments). This included a joyful stint of anthropological fieldwork in Bali, which was also oddly enough the turning point for me to really start writing. 

So it took me a while to settle into what I wanted to do (write and only write) – and how to get on with it (write more). But I view all this musical learning as absolutely key to my writing, both the Western classical music I badgered away at as a child and also the Indonesian music that I got to know and love some years later. All these musical experiences attuned my ears to the nuances of sound and heightened my sense of rhythm and rhyme (to the extent that a really good rhyme elicits a weird sort of physical pleasure in me that I only half understand). I think music has also helped me understand the value of poetry (particularly) as a more performative kind of language. Not that poetry necessarily needs to be read out in front of crowds of people, but rather that poems do things: they change the mood of a room or a brain in the same slightly mysterious way that listening to a musical performance can. I think poems are a little bit like magic spells in this respect.

Since writing Moon Juice and having happily spent lots of time with children reading, writing and talking about poetry, I’m ever more convinced of the powerful connection between music, poetry and the thornier bits of literacy learning. The amazing capacity of nursery rhymes to introduce language to the very youngest children is no secret: it is through these singsong rhymes that we ready our ears for words, drawn along by the skip and ring of rhythmic, rhyming verse. And research over the last few years has highlighted these positive connections more and more. Listening to musical sounds aids children’s ability to hear phonemes and differentiate between spoken sounds, while singing as children also helps us to ‘syllabify’ and make sense of those bigger building blocks of language. A number of studies demonstrate how children’s grasp of rhyme is aided by musical engagement, and music has been found to work wonders in almost every aspect of literacy learning for children with dyslexia. 

The connection between music and writing seems a little less explored, but instinctively makes huge sense to me. Wordplay of all kinds strikes me as one of the great joys of writing and is something I take very seriously! Treating words as sound objects in their own right can really help a poem breathe. I sometimes let my instincts choose a word in a line mostly for its sound, and this can open up all sorts of interesting new meanings in a poem. My poem ‘Word Hoard’ in Cloud Soup explores the lovely medieval idea of gathering up your favourite words like treasures to keep close. My poem is all about the magic interplay of sound and sense in language and the pure joy of certain words on the tongue. My hope is that the poem might inspire children to think afresh about what particular words they relish. 

Rhythm is also a wonderful point of connection between music and poetry. Rhythm has a powerful role in a neat rhyming couplet, of course, but rhythm can also be expressed more subtly through the white space on the page. How we space out our writing, particularly in free verse poems, is (for me) all about breath and pacing: it offers a wonderful opportunity to explore musicality in a poem. In my poem ‘The Deep’, I use lots of open space on the page to conjure up the drifting mystery of the furthest reaches of the ocean, and to encourage the reader to take their time in sounding out each phrase of the poem (be it aloud or to themselves) as they read it.

So while I no longer really count myself as a musician, in many ways my writing does perhaps feel like a sort of music-making. I never seem to get bored of the endless possibilities of fiddling about with language and savouring the interplay between a word’s sound and its sense. I suppose I think of poems as a form of word music – a music that mostly plays very quietly in other people’s heads while they read, but a kind of music all the same.

Cloud Soup by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elīna Braslina  is published by The Emma Press, July 2021. Read Sam Keeley’s review.

Moon Juice is included in Just Imagine’s Take One Book programme in Year Three.