How poetry approaches music (and dances away again)

magnoliaThat’s the little magnolia in our side yard, intensely pink but browned from last night’s ice. A very intense winter term is just ending, one that included lots of grief and good news for the people around me, and that struggling tree, planted by the previous owners, seems a reasonably good emblem for it all. A little scraggly, but in persistence, beautiful.

I’ve been meaning for a while to post some reflections about my winter term courses. One of them, a general-education level seminar, focused on poetry and music. We started with prosody and moved through a series of mini-lessons on poetry riffing on various musical genres: spirituals, blues, jazz, punk, hip hop. Anna Lena Phillips Bell visited and talked about old-time music in relation to her book Ornament. A student composer stopped in, and two other visitors analyzed song lyrics poetically, focusing on Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan. It was all tremendously fun, not least because my students were smart and game. I’m not sure I feel much closer to answering my big question: what possible relations exist between poetry and song? But I did write up the thoughts below for my students and they seem worth sharing.

First: while there are pieces about which I’d say with perfect confidence, “That strongly fits my definition of poetry,” or “that’s absolutely a song,” there’s a gray area where the genres lean strongly towards each other–a cappella singing, rap, poems recited rhythmically or over music. If music means “sound organized in time,” performed poetry fits the bill, whether or not the words are set to melody or there’s instrumental accompaniment. Rhythm is latent in words; voices have pitch, timbre, dynamics.

Conversely, song lyrics can be printed out and analyzed poetically, and singer-composers in various eras have had a very strong influence on what page-poets try to accomplish. I’m still bothered when people conflate the genres or put them in competition with each other, because the differences in media feel profound to me, yet lyric poetry and songs with lyrics share a strong sisterhood.

But given my own devotion to patterned words on a page, a medium I find powerful in its own right, I wanted to systematize the ways a printed poem can engage music. My provisional answers:

  1. Through allusion: by referencing a song or a type of music, the poet can sketch a time & place or hint at a speaker’s frame of reference, as epigraphs in Ornament help connect the poems to Appalachia. If the reader knows the song, the allusion can even function as sensory detail does—the poet transfers an ear-worm so that scraps of music play in the reader’s memory while reading. This helps conjure a literary world the way reference to a taste, scent, or texture can.
  2. Through rhythm and sound effects: readers can perceive meter, alliteration, rhyme, and other “sound” effects without actually voicing a poem. These patterns or discords shape tone and can help imprint lines in memory; they engage us in making predictions about when the refrain will come or what the rhyme will be. Sometimes intensely patterned poems are contagious: you want to voice them, as if humming along.
  3. Through imitation/ adaptation: sometimes a poet is trying to achieve what a song or a musical form achieves—to stir or move readers—so that a poem includes, in some metaphorical sense, its own music. Certain Langston Hughes poems ARE blues or jazz, at least as far as print can simulate them. Rhythmical effects and rhyme, as in #2, contribute to the “music.” Typographic and other visual effects may come into play.
  4. Through response or criticism: a poem can, in a more expository way, explain what a song or musical element means, giving us a new and better-informed way to hear it. I’d put Yusef Komunyakaa’s “February in Sydney” in this category.

Scraggly list, or beautiful, or both? I’d be happy to hear about angles I’ve underplayed or overlooked. I really liked this topic for a course and plan to come back to it.

6 thoughts on “How poetry approaches music (and dances away again)

  1. Lesley, I’ve pondered this, particularly since Dylan was selected for the Nobel. (I would have preferred Leonard Cohen myself.) So glad that you have the opportunity to teach. I’d love to send you a copy of “Blind Girl Grunt” by Constance Merritt, published by my press (Headmistress Press) which is subtitled “Selected Blues Lyrics and other Poems”. It’s a finalist for a Lammy this year. Even if you didn’t find it useful for class, I think you would appreciate her voice. She tells us the interesting detail that Bob Dylan and Janis Ian contributed tracks to Broadside Magazine using the aliases Blind Boy Grunt and Blind Girl Grunt. Send me your mailing address if you’d like me to send you a copy: risaden@gmail.com

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  2. 1. I REALLY wish I could sit in this class.
    2. I completely agree with (ii), and once wrote a paper (in grad school) about how Emily Dickinson used meter and expected meter that then wasn’t there to create mood/effects in her poems.
    3. I strongly believe growing up playing music and having Bach be my mother’s favorite composer gave me a facility to write formal poetry. Because my mother was classically trained my music was classical. But ED’s music was hymns. Langston Hughes’ was blues.

    Lesley, were you raised playing or listening to music?

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  3. My grandmother sang old songs to me and I learned them by heart, but otherwise my childhood was thin on music until at 15 I turned on that New York station and couldn’t believe what I heard at all, as Lou Reed sings. My life was changed by rock and roll.

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  4. And as to Emily Dickinson, it is amazing with her metrical attention, that virtually every one of her poems can be recited to the tune of “There’s a Yellow Rose of Texas..” Certainly musical lyrics create memorization of popular songs with the rhyme and metrical schemes. What i fear has happened with modern pop music is that the lyrics have been reduced to cliches. That is why I have admired the truly lyrical songwriters, like Cohen, Dylan, Aimee Mann (see The Arm), Janis Ian, Carol King and so on. When language is played as true language in music then we all fall in love with poetry.

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  5. I was raised on ballads and cabaret songs (thinking Noel Coward) – the latter gave me a taste for assonance over perfect rhyme, not to mention a great pleasure in taking liberties with words. … I think of a sonnet as a dancer whose waist is the turn – top and bottom move differently but to the same beat. … Thank you for this – the topic is buzzing around my mind already. … cheers from Down Under

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