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April 27, 2010

Singer Natalie Merchant Inspired by Classic Poetry

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After a long and successful musical career singing both solo and as part of the band 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant has turned to classical poetry as the inspiration for her newest album, titled “Leave Your Sleep.” While the project was originally designed to introduce poetry to children, including Merchant’s own young daughter, it eventually became a sophisticated and lyrical two-disc album that explores poetry about childhood.

For the album, Merchant included works by well-known poets like Robert Graves and E. E. Cummings and by a number of lessen-known writers, including Charles Carryl and Lydia Huntley Sigourney. The music was drawn from a variety of styles and was chosen by Merchant to match the tone and lyrics in each individual poem.

To prepare for setting the poetry to music, Merchant had to recite each poem many times to find its meaning and structure.

“A poet transports you to a place where you can experience what they saw or what they felt, what they smelled, what they touched,” Merchant says.


“Poetry comes alive to me through recitation. Even when I was working on this project, some of the poems, when I read them the first time, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning, and I couldn’t really understand the structure, the internal rhythms and rhymes.” – Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant

“A poet transports you to a place where you can experience what they saw or what they felt, what they smelled, what they touched,” – Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant

Warm Up Questions

1. What is a poem? What sets it apart from other written forms?

2. What is the difference between a poem and a song?

3. What does it mean to say a poem is “lyrical?”

Discussion Questions

1. If you were to set a poem to music, which poem would you choose and why? What type of music would you set the poem to, and why?

2. Have you ever recited a poem out loud? If so, what more did you learn about the poem by saying the words?

3. Do you have a favorite childhood poem? What drew you to that poem as a child?

4. Why do you think Merchant’s poetry project eventually became something for both adults and children? Why would adults be drawn to this project?

Additional Resources

Video Transcript

NewsHour Poetry Series

NewsHour Extra Poetry Page

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