Poetry & Song: “Elegy” and Adele’s “Hometown Glory”

Do you listen to music while you write? Has a specific song or music artist ever influenced one of your stories, poems, etc.? This has happened with a number of my published poems. Thus, Poetry & Song is a limited-run series where I share one of my published poems and the song that “helped me write” it. I also offer insights into why I chose that particular piece of music, as well as any other inspirations for the poem.

Some of you might know that I’m a published poet, with several poems accepted for print and online publication between 2012 and 2014. While I’m focusing on novels now, from time to time I’ve entertained ideas about how to discuss poetry (either my own or the poets I admire) here at the blog. Then, during last month’s Iceland Writers Retreat, I took Nadifa Mohamed’s “Music and Literature” workshop, which explored how the music we listen to can influence our writing. It turned out to be my favorite workshop of the event – and it also sparked the idea for this series.

Today I’d like to kick off the Poetry & Song series with “Elegy,” which was published in Soul-Lit’s Summer 2013 issue. And had it not been for a certain piano ballad by one of the most incredibly voices and songwriters in current pop music, I’m not sure “Elegy” would be what it is today. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about the poem without the song, or how that poem changed my feelings toward the song forever.

Before we go too far, click here to read “Elegy” at Soul-Lit. Feel free to keep its tab / window open as you read this post.

How the Boston Marathon Bombings Compelled Me to Write “Elegy”

I wrote “Elegy” a few weeks after the terrorist attack at that year’s Boston Marathon. While I wasn’t there on Boylston Street that day, and neither was anyone else I knew or loved, the horror of that day sank in like an anchor. In fact, after re-reading this #1000Speak post I wrote for the bombings’ second anniversary, I don’t think I can express what drove me to write “Elegy” better than how I did then. So here’s a brief excerpt from that post on just that:

For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bombings. Even if I avoided the news coverage, my mind kept replaying the images I’d seen. Runners and spectators alike fleeing from the explosions, hurrying toward the injured and carrying them to safety, screaming, crying, bloodied, hugging each other – they haunted me to the point that I was constantly fighting a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

Not only that, but I felt like a special place for so many people – including myself – had been violated. I’ve never attended the Boston Marathon, but I know the neighborhood of the finish line (Boylston Street, in the Back Bay district) better than any other part of Boston. It’s home to Copley Place, the shopping center where I tried on the junior bridesmaid dress I wore at my cousin Erin’s wedding when I was 13 years old; Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, and historic churches, all of which host events during the Boston Book Festival; Grub Street, where I’ve taken several creative writing classes; and Emerson College, where I received my copyediting certificate in 2013. And that’s just for starters.

Every time I go back to Boylston Street, it feels like visiting an old friend. Cherished memories really can turn a place into something like a fictional character from your favorite book. And to see that character, that dear friend and source of happy memories and meaning, be littered with bomb debris and covered with blood… It broke my heart.

That was what struck me the most about my feelings. Not only was I upset about the trauma that had been inflicted on so many innocent people, but I was also grieving for the place. And while it’s normal to feel emotionally connected to a place, that connection tends to come in the form of nostalgia (“I miss that house,” or “I can’t wait to go back there for vacation”) or contentment (“It’s so good to be home”).

But for Boylston Street and Copley Square, on that awful day, what I felt was a mix of anguish and violation. It was raw, inconsolable… and it clung to me for days, and weeks. That’s when I knew I needed to write about it.

During that poetry phase, I always knew when a poem was coming. Motion-picture images of the idea would keep flashing in my mind, and the words that wanted to be used pranced on the tip of my tongue, as if they yearned to be spoken as well as written. Neither sensation would quit until I made time for the poem. And by the time I drafted “Elegy,” I swore the poem was about to claw its way out of my throat. It was the most visceral “arrival” I’ve ever experienced with writing.

That’s also why I prefer to say that the bombings compelled me to write “Elegy,” rather than inspired. When you’re inspired, you tend to feel uplifted, invigorated. There’s also a desire to act on that feeling, and the act of it enlivens and enriches you. But when you’re compelled, something more urgent and desperate is driving that desire. Something that still moves you as deeply as when you’re inspired, but with more emotional gravity – be it grief, anger, loss, or a tangled mess of feelings. And now that I think about it, the poems I’m most proud of writing came when I was compelled to write them, rather than simply being inspired.

Enter Adele’s “Hometown Glory”

As soon as I sat down to write “Elegy,” I knew I’d need the help of “Hometown Glory.” It was already my favorite song on Adele’s debut album 19, and at first I was hesitant to lean on such a beloved piece of music for a poem that was surely going to hurt as I wrote it. Yet, being a lyrics “junkie,” I knew what “Hometown Glory” was about as well as Adele’s story behind the song. Here’s an excerpt from a Blues & Soul interview that Adele did in 2008, where she talks about the song:

“It was kind of about me and my mum not agreeing on where I should go to university…. [I]t was a kind of protest song about cherishing the memories – whether good or bad – of your hometown. Whereas – having only been to Liverpool about twice – there’s nothing there that comforts me, here in London – even if I’m having a really shit day – there’s still something I love about the place. So really yeah, in general it is an ode to the place where I’ve always lived.”

That “hymn to a city” idea emerges throughout the lyrics in “Hometown Glory.” Adele sings about the way in which she follows the sidewalks, the tiny details that show the city’s beauty and ugliness, and the resilient yet supportive attitude of its residents. And if you listen to (or read the lyrics of) the chorus, you’ll see that the song is as much as a tribute to a place one calls home as it is to loved ones, friends, neighbors, and other people living there:

Round my hometown
Memories are fresh
Round my hometown
Ooh the people I’ve met
Are the wonders of my world…

The music for “Hometown Glory” was another reason why I played it while writing “Elegy.” It’s a piano ballad, with strings that emerge during the first chorus and continue weaving throughout the song, receding in quieter moments and cresting with the piano and Adele’s voice during the final chorus. It’s lyrical yet simple, impassioned yet spare – a piece of music that, as I thought at the time, would allow me to focus on specific things I wanted to say and possibly enhance the emotions I hoped to convey.

And… well, let’s just say that “Hometown Glory” did exactly that as I wrote the first draft of “Elegy.”

The Rest of the Story Behind “Elegy”

What still stuns me about “Elegy” is how quickly it was published. Two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, I attended the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem with a friend. There I met poet Deborah Leipziger, who’s also the co-founder of the online spiritual poetry journal Soul-Lit, and attended a reading of local poets whose works had been featured in Soul-Lit. When I learned that Soul-Lit’s deadline for its Summer 2013 issue was coming up, I knew it was time to write the poem that had been clamoring inside me, and that I might have found the right home for it.

That happened during the first weekend of May 2013. I wrote “Elegy” the following weekend, revised and edited it until I was satisfied, and submitted it to Soul-Lit by the end of the month. Come late June, I received an email from Deborah saying that “Elegy” would be in  Soul-Lit’s Summer 2013 issue in July.

In total, about 3 months passed from the birth of the idea of “Elegy” to its publication. It’s an incredibly fast turnaround compared to other poems I’d written that had received a “yes.” It’s also the “yes” that made me cry the hardest – maybe just as much as when I had drafted that poem – and the one I’m most proud of to this day.

A number of “stills” linger from this experience four years later. I’m still incredibly proud of writing “Elegy.” I’m still sensitive to any memories regarding the Boston Marathon bombings. By that, I mean that it hurts to see any replays of news coverage and follow-ups about survivors, the dead, and their families, though some stories uplift me as well. And I still tear up whenever I listen to “Hometown Glory,” or even talk about the experience of writing “Elegy.” I’m even fighting tears now, as I write this post.

But if I hadn’t listened to “Hometown Glory,” “Elegy” wouldn’t be the poem it is today – and it might not have been published, either. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

What memorable experiences have you had with writing while listening to music? Have any songs or compositions “helped you write” a difficult piece of writing (poem, essay, scene for a story, etc.)? What song(s) has offered you comfort or solace during difficult times? Also, have you ever written a poem, essay, etc. with a particular publication in mind as you drafted that piece?

Also, since this is the first “edition” of Poetry & Song, I’d love to know your overall thoughts on this as a limited-run blog series. Would you be interested in reading more of these posts, maybe once every two or three months (or as time allows)?

22 thoughts on “Poetry & Song: “Elegy” and Adele’s “Hometown Glory”

  1. Your poem is both beautiful and sad. I love your writing style, and could feel your raw emotions in every line. Thank you for sharing it. I don’t write much poetry, mainly writing short stories and novels, but music is my constant companion throughout the process. Mostly I don’t listen to particular songs, but the first one that comes to mind when I think of writing the hard scenes in my current WIP, is ‘Deliver Us’, from the Prince of Egypt soundtrack. The emotions in the song really helped me write the feelings of my characters.
    I’d love to see more of these kinds of posts! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Melissa. Other people have said similar things about Elegy, that they could really feel the emotions of this piece. And I’m both glad and grateful for that, though it wasn’t a conscious intention of mine, oddly enough. I think I was so focused on trying to find the right words to express my thoughts, feelings, and memories that, apart from telling a story, the big-picture and technical aspects were nowhere in mind. I don’t know if that makes any sense…? But it’s always amazing to hear reader’s responses, because they always pick up on things that the writer isn’t fully aware of.

      That’s a great example of music “helping” you write particular scenes. I’m not familiar with “Deliver Us” or the Prince of Egypt soundtrack (though I’ve heard of the movie). But I know what it’s like to “steep” yourself in a song that helps you dig into a character’s feelings, having done that with my own manuscripts.

      Again, thanks so much for reading and commenting, Melissa. 🙂

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  2. I loved the poem, and I’m not into poetry at all! But I could feel the emotions you must have experienced. Add in a powerful song and it’s a very emotional experience. Thanks for sharing, Sara!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do remember the poem from when you first talked about it – it touched me then and it touched me now. My husband is from the Boston area, his brother still lives in Quincy. That day he was checking out Patriots Day festivities and got stuck in the city when all the horror went down, but thankfully he was safe – though he knew the father of the boy who was killed. It’s just so sad and terrible. I can’t even imagine for Bostonions and folks from MA for whom this hit so close to home, and the memories and pain that linger from seeing reminders everywhere 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I remember your reaction when I wrote about “Elegy” last time. And yeah, it’s still hard to grasp it all in hindsight – and I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who were actually there at the marathon that day. (I don’t think I could ever watch the movie “Patriots Day” for this and other reasons, too.) I’m just grateful that my brother was safely evacuated from UMass Dartmouth on the day of the manhunt. And I’m glad to hear your brother-in-law was safe, too.

      On a related note, two of my best friends live in Quincy.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mogsy. 🙂

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  4. Goodness, Sara! That poem really touched my heart. This entire post has left me feeling a little out of body. There’s something about it that really resonates within me, not that I’ve experienced something quite like what you have, but the emotions you’ve spoken of, the way music has inspired you, the way you took a tragic turn of events and created something so beautiful… I can relate to that (except for the beautiful creation part, but the need to create something to work through my feelings)
    Thanks for sharing all of this. It’s a very inspirational post and it resonates deeply with me.
    On a somewhat different note, I saw above that you’re not familiar with the Prince of Egypt soundtrack and I just want to highly recommend that you take a listen. It is the kind of music that gives you shivers each time you listen. Deliver Us is a powerful song and Hans Zimmer crafts such a gorgeous score!
    Music is a powerful creative force!

    Liked by 1 person

    • *gives Faith a huge hug* You’re very welcome. Discussing “Elegy” and the Boston Marathon in any way has always been tough for me. So I wasn’t sure if this post would make sense to me, or if it would be rambly and incoherent despite my best efforts. But the comments so far have been really heartening and affirming, so I’m deeply grateful for that.

      I’ll definitely give the Prince of Egypt soundtrack a listen when I have a chance. Thanks for recommending it. 😉

      Isn’t music incredible? Not just in the way it can inspire or enhance one’s creativity, but also in how it can simply move us to tears, joy, and other emotions. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t love music. It’s been such an integral part of my life besides writing.

      Btw, would you be interested in reading more Poetry & Song posts in the future? (I have a few more examples to share, so that’s why I’m asking.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Music is the most incredible. I sometimes believe that there is nothing that moves me as much as music. When I play the guitar, I just get swept up in it. More than writing. It’s otherworldly.
        And I would love to see more of these Poetry and Song posts!! ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow this had to be a very tough piece to write. The day that the terrorist attack happened in Nice, France, I was watching the Mockingjay Part 1, and I couldn’t help crying for both the district 8 citizens killed in the hospital and the people killed needlessly in Nice, so every time I think of that scene I think of Nice and associate the music that plays at that part with it. Thanks for sharing.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was tough to write, yes. But like I said in the post, the need to get those thoughts and feelings onto paper was much stronger than the fear of letting them loose. I had to write it, or else my emotions would have eaten away at me.

      Your example of Mockingjay and the Nice terrorist attack reminded me of a similar song association from my life. The day before my paternal grandmother passed away, I listed to Within Temptation’s “The Silent Force” album for the first time. That CD features the song “Memories,” which is about grieving loved ones now gone and being grateful for the memories you have of them. It’s a beautiful song, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t heard it before (I’d add a YouTube link, but I can’t access it at the moment)… But now, whenever I listen to “Memories,” I can’t help but think about my grandmother, and it always brings the tears back.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Tori. *hugs*

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember reading this poem back when you first shared it, and I like how you’ve shared even more about it and how music helped to write the words. It’s a beautiful piece.
    Last year a terrorist drove a truck through the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany and it affected me because my family had gone there several times and it was one of the most beautiful Christmas markets I’d ever been to as a child. I still remember it’s bright spirit and cheer. It’s horrible that someone would devastate a place that was so special. It hurt.
    As for your question, I’d like to read more about your poems in future posts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, E. 🙂

      I remember hearing about that attack after it happened. It’s just… impossible to comprehend, that people would do such things. Especially at a place that brings so much cheer and joy to others, like that Christmas market.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a strong, emotional poem, Sara! I loved the raw passion and hurt you’ve expressed about the place as well as the people who were injured there. Yes – the song ‘Samson’ by Regina Specktor inspired the opening passage I wrote of ‘Running Out of Space’. At the time it was going to be a short story, which then turned into a trilogy, which is going to become a science fiction whodunit series… And I find music incredibly important when I’m writing. I would love to read more posts about your creative process and your poetry as a series. Thank you for sharing:).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sarah. :’)

      That’s a great example of music inspiring a scene from your story. I’ve heard of Regina Spektor, though it’s a long time since I listened to her music. As for the series, it’s definitely going to continue, now that I’ve seen how well this post has been received so far. 🙂

      Like

  8. 1. I love to listen to chakra music when my head needs clarity when thoughts and ideas are going every direction.
    2. I love to listen to my Pandora mix most times when each song’s lyrics or beats will remind me of parts of my life and ideas and thoughts that make me who I am, and let me roll with it.
    3. I love this idea, and I hope to read more. I’m definitely in favor of more like this, Sara.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Eli. 🙂 This series is definitely going to continue, thanks to all the wonderful input that you and other readers have offered so far. And I echo your sentiments about chakra / new age music. I have several CDs worth on my iPod and find the songs soothing for many purposes, not just relaxation and meditation.

      Like

  9. So many terrible incidents have been happening around the world these days, but I’ve been quite fortunate to never witness or hear about any close to home. Tragedies that have affected me all include deaths of close family members or friends/people my age which has left me conflicted for days. I’ve never thought of putting those words into a poem because I’m not much of a poet myself.
    That said, I know the feeling you described and how you used the word “compelled” rather than “inspired”. There is something so devastating to see a place full of memories in shambles, precious lives lost and the injuries of the survivors that I can’t quite capture with words. But I think your poem did. I could feel the emotion in every word and I know it must have been difficult holding them in check while writing. I can only imagine the pain and the sense of loss that must have gripped you when you wrote that. It was so powerful to experience that through your words, but at the same time, it made me so sad. The music complements the poem so perfectly and I listened to it a second time with my eyes closed to really feel it in my bones.
    Do continue on with the series, Sara. I’d love to know the story behind your poems and also read more of your poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is sad (and frightening) to see how frequent and widespread terrorist attacks have become. Thankfully I didn’t know anyone who was in Boston that day, but my brother did go to school with one of the suspects. (They didn’t know each other; my brother was a senior, a couple years ahead of the suspect.) So the day when his university was evacuated to search the suspect’s dorm room… THAT was a scary day for us. I didn’t feel at ease until I saw him at our parents’ house that night and gave him a hug. And like you, I’ve experienced the deaths of loved ones (only grandparents so far), but nothing as terrifying or difficult to comprehend as this.

      Thanks so much for your comments on “Elegy.” 🙂 I don’t know what else to say besides that, because your response was… just lovely. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • *hugs* I can only imagine how scary that would be. The closest thing I have felt is while watching Homeland and that’s only fiction. I’m so glad to know that everyone you know was safe that day.
        Oh, you don’t have to thank me. Thanks for showcasing the poem. I wasn’t a follower of the blog when you wrote that, so I’m glad I got a chance to read it now.

        Liked by 1 person

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