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#CountdowntoPub - Writing to Radiohead: Sonic Translations for Thom Yorke


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#CountdowntoPub - Writing to Radiohead: Sonic Translations for Thom Yorke

Guy Intoci

Used by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative. From Teachers & Writers Magazine, Winter 201-2013, Vol. 44, No. 2 and


When I write, I do my best to write with poet Ezra Pound's motto in my head: "Make it new." When I teach, after twenty-one years of working as a writer-in-the-schools with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, here too, in the classroom, I do my best to "make it new" when I teach.

         It's a much easier road, I know, to lean back on the "tried and true" writing activities that I know work and that I know how to make them work like the backs of my own hands. Exercises, such as, writing a list poem about all the things you can and cannot do with your hands, or "I Am/You Are" poems, or self-portrait poems using similes and metaphors, or days when I invite students to look inside their "magic" pencils and write down what they see. Don't get me wrong: great poems, original material, can continue to be mined from such invitations and activities, but to keep my own head and heart fresh and wide-eyed to the possibilities of poetry, I try to challenge myself to come up with—to create, to dream up, just like when I write—things that I haven't done before. Believe you me, after sixteen years working in the public schools of Detroit, there's always something new waiting to happen.

         As a writer, I also preach to myself and to other writers to write out of obsession. If you like fish, write about fish. If food is your obsession, make poetry from food. If shooting pool is your thing, find the poetry of the pool hall. It's there, no doubt about it, waiting to be fished up, made, or bank-shot into a poem. 

         When I talk to other writers-in-the-schools, I often hear my own voice give them this bit of advice: "Teach," I tell them, "out of obsession." Which brings me to one of my own obsessions and how I taught out of it. It being the art-rock band Radiohead.

         If singer Thom Yorke's lyrics aren't exactly poems, then I would argue that the songs themselves—the coupling of words with music—are exactly what I look for when I reach for a poem: a mixture of musicality and mystery and just enough visual anchoring for me to feel my way as a listener/reader through the landscape of image and sound.

         Most of my students in Detroit listen to what I'd call TV pop-rap, or what they see either on American Idol or on the music video award shows on Nick at Nite and MTV. I did have a student once who, when I brought in some blues music to show them the similarities between blues music (Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, BB King) and blues poetry (Langston Hughes), knew that BB King had a guitar named Lucille (her preacher in church, the Sunday before, had worked this bit of info into his sermon). But Radiohead, along with most bands off the radar of popular radio, is a different story and is uncharted territory for these students.

         One of the things that I love about Radiohead is the sound of singer Thom Yorke's voice. It's mumbly, hummy, garbled, gargly, angelic, symphonic, harmonic, whispy, anthemic, and most often it is hard to make out exactly what it is he is saying. Put three Radiohead fans in a room together and ask them to sing along to most any of their songs and what you'll get is three different sets of lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics we think we are hearing are better than what is actually being sung, sort of in the same way that a misreading of a text (or even a typo) can oftentimes lead a reader (or writer) into more interesting places within a book.

         So, to keep it fresh, I will bring in songs from a band like Radiohead and I will play some of their songs to my 4th graders. I play a song once and then I tell them, "I don't really know what the singer is saying." Then I cue the same song again and I ask them to write down what they think the singer is saying. "Write fast," I say. "Do your best to keep up with the song." Then I add, "And it's okay if what you are hearing, what you are writing down, doesn't make sense."

         To lead up to the playing of the songs, I write two words—translate and sonic—up on the marker-board. "To translate something," one student will say, "is to take words from one language and to say it in another language." The word "sonic" might take some students into thinking about Sonic the hedgehog from Cartoon Network but eventually one student will mention "sonic boom" which will lead you to the basic definition that we're looking for her: "sonic" meaning "sound."

         So I tell students this: that we're taking the language of the sound that we hear in Radiohead and are translating that sound into the words you think your ears are hearing. 

         It's that simple. And it really is. I hit play on the classroom CD player and the first song, "No Surprises," begins to play. And the students begin to write.

         Here is a sample of what they come up with:


A Sonic Translation of 'No Surprises' by Radiohead


I can't figure out

the color of the wrong surprises

Angel can you speak

for us the color of the wrong

surprises. Silent silent. This is

the final silence

the color of the rose surprises.

Pretty touches.

Color of the rose surprises




Grade 4


Sonic Translation of 'No Surprises' by Radiohead


black land


with love




























Grade 4



A Sonic Translation of 'No Surprises' by Radiohead


I can feel black and white

You look so tired

Angel I'll say quiet

No lies and no surprises


No lies and no surprises

Such a pretty day

No lies and no surprises


I can see black and white

I can feel you here

Angel that I'll speak for

I'll say hugs and no surprises

Sorrow sorrow

Hugs and no surprises please

Such a pretty life

Hugs and no surprises please



Grade 4 



I then hit song number two: "Everything in its Right Place" and tell the students to listen first, then write, and to trust not only their own ears, but also to trust and to write down what it is that their hands have to say.



Everything in its Right Place

         ---after Radiohead


Livin' large live large

Everything is in a separate cage

When yesterday I woke up

So good up in that room.

Everything is in a shark cage.

There are colors in my head.

Why did she try to say try to save

Everything everything everything.



Grade 4



Everything in its Right Place

            ---after Radiohead


I come out of the darkness

I come into the light

I leave my past behind me

I'm always in God's hands

You make me insane

You make the stars not shine



Grade 4




Everything in its Right Place

            ---after Radiohead


Run it on

every scent

every scene

every try

walk up


and I try again

two corners in my head

what is it you try to sing?

try try try

every city

every second



Grade 4


Truth be told, I had done a similar exercise some years before where I asked students to do homophonic translations of poems by Lorca and Vallejo, but translating songs from ear to page brings out more fruitful results and, in the end, is much more fun.

         Even those students who flounder a bit on the more resistant side of the page opened up with this activity. The words are already there, in the air, so to speak, or maybe even in the ear of the student listener, and if no one really knows what the singer is singing, well then there's no wrong response to the writing of this poem. Anything goes, which as far as activities go in the poet's classroom, the student poets will go far and take language and the song itself that they are tuning in to to new and never before seen heights.

         Which is the point: we want our students to be and feel successful in the classroom. Writing creatively is one way to go about this. As is singing. Ask yourself this: Is there a right or wrong way to sing? I love what Henry Miller has to say about singing in his book The Tropic of Cancer.  "I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing…To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”

         Which again is the point. We want to give students an opportunity to sing. You might call this activity karaoke without the script of words guiding you through the song. I prefer to let the students be guided by sound, by what they make out of what they hear. What they come up with, the words they find on the page, is the song that's been in them waiting for the right time to be let out. To be sung. To be made into song.

         Thom Yorke: make room for these remixes to your songs. These are the words that you could have sung had a child whispered them into your ear.