‘The Walking Shadows’ is the first libretto I’ve ever written.  It was performed at St Martin in the Fields on October 30th 2018 alongside Mozart’s Requiem, one of my favourite pieces of music.  It was composed byStephen McNeff to mark the hundredth anniversary of the First World War.

‘For me, the sound of the words is just as important as their meaning’

Apples and Snakes put me in touch with Stephen because he was looking for a poet to write the words to an Arts Council funded commission he planned to compose.  I’ve always loved working with musicians as I believe that spoken word poetry lies somewhere between prose and the purely instrumental. For me, the sound of the words is just as important as their meaning.  When I first started writing poetry at around the age of eleven, I often wrote while listening to music and was inspired by pop lyrics.

I’ve written five shows that I’ve performed with live music as well as writing poems inspired by music written for me.  I’ve also performed at poetry nights where jazz musicians have improvised in the background. A libretto is somewhat different however in that it is more of a collaboration between the writer and composer.  At the end of the day, it is the music that is the heart and soul of the piece. The words serve to convey the emotional power of the singers. Part of the challenge is that when words are sung, a little goes a long way so emotional depth needs to be compressed into vivid imagery that lingers in the ears.  There also needs to be a clarity and simplicity that makes these images possible to sing. In other words, a great deal needs to be packed into a small space.

‘At the end of the day, it is the music that is the heart and soul of the piece. The words serve to convey the emotional power of the singers’

The scale of slaughter in World War One was so vast that Stephen and I felt we needed to find a personal way into exploring this centenary.  We decided to go to Belgium to visit the graves of British and Irish soldiers killed in World War I. This was made particularly poignant when we succeeded in finding the grave of Stephen’s great uncle Eddie.  I also researched many personal letters written at the time as well as drawing on my experience as poet in residence for the Gosport Gallery’s Artists Rifles exhibition. However it was this visceral experience of standing in the pouring rain on a grim February afternoon surrounded by the graves of so many young men that gave us a common language for discovering what story we wanted to tell.

‘For me, poetry is about trying to say the unsayable’

Just as we were leaving I saw a teenage boy in a hoodie hurrying through the graves.  I knew it wasn’t a ghost but it sent a shiver down my spine all the same. This became my starting point though it is captured towards the end of the piece when Millie sings of her boyfriend Eddie who was shot at dawn for being a traitor.

‘The cold is without pity.  It sneaks between the graves as light fades.

The stones are white with the promise of green moss, the trees stark

in their silence.  Suddenly I see him, a boy dashing through the rows

of headstones, his hood flapping in the wind, his arms outstretched.

I think for a moment it is our Eddie come back to life,

but it’s only some local farmer’s lad taking a short cut home.

I hear his laughter, see again his pale handsome face,

the cheeky wink, the forget-me-not eyes, the ghost

of all that is good in the world.’

I felt a responsibility to try to capture the loss and suffering of the First World War in a way that was not sentimental but respectful to all those whose lives were shattered.  For me, poetry is about trying to say the unsayable. Sometimes music gives us a powerful insight and means of communicating where words cannot contain the pain of our experiences.  This is why I continue to write librettos as I love the connection with music and the opportunity to work with brilliant composers.


Aoife Mannix is the author of four collections of poetry and a novel.  She has been poet in residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live.  www.aoifemannix.co.uk


First published October 2018