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.

Conversations and mixtapes

Around the time I started reading Ginsberg and Keats, enraptured by anaphora and alliteration, I was also spending all my babysitting dollars on record albums by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop—and when the money ran out, checking beat-up Janis Joplin LPs out of our town’s tiny cedar-shake library, a repurposed chapel. All this art addressed the same longing: I was lonely and bored in my single-sex Catholic high school. I had too few friends who cared about books and music. The time I spent plugged into a Walkman, or lying on the floor next to speakers at the softest possible volume (audible music irritated my parents), didn’t seem all that different from the hours poring over City Lights paperbacks. It was all about tuning into those anguished, sympathetic voices however I could.

I still read and write poetry when I’m lonely. I know it’s perverse to open a book when you want conversation but, off campus, it’s often hard to get down to serious talk: the intellectual, emotional, shockingly impolite high-stakes stuff good books are full of. I bring this need to music much less often than I used to, partly because poetry occupies center stage—but also, ridiculously, because my eyes went bad. I lost the argument about keeping LPs downstairs (I’m re-waging the war this summer); Chris insists on stacking the CDs in a dark corner where I can’t read the spines; from the beginning I found the celebrated tininess of iPods just irritating. And while I can’t read music or carry a tune, my spouse and daughter are musicians with strong opinions, and so far teenage eye-rolling has thwarted my desire to get to know old-time music better. In the eternal spousal divide-and-conquer allotment of skills, commitments, and obsessions, I just threw up my hands: OK, Chris, music is yours.

I’ve been thinking, though, that I need to bring music back into my classrooms, beyond the occasional illustrative track for a class on blues or jazz poetry. My colleague Gordon Ball at VMI has been talking about an undergraduate poetry and music symposium in 2013 and I’m having fantasies of a Claudia Emerson/ Kent Ippolito concert. I just taught “Introduction to Poetry” again for the first time in years—it used to be my big major-recruiting class, sacrificed during my stint as department head—and I don’t know why I let slip that little unit on poetry and music I always closed with. There are certain students who will follow you to the ends of the earth if you let them write a paper on their favorite Bob Dylan song; it’s a good thing to snag those kids early. A lot of my very best students came to poetry through music. John Melillo of Algae and Tentacles, for example, is now an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona and basically specializes in noise. The day he recited “Howl” to my class through a voice changing device, I laughed so hard I achieved a sort of anoxic nirvana.

When I started teaching, students would sometimes make me those labor-intensive mixtapes, involving hours of recording vinyl to cassette. The mixers were almost always male, the memorable exception being the always exceptional Jeanne, who offered up a compilation of lesbian folk singers. Listen to this, they’d urge, pressing the Maxell tape or, later, CD into my hands, because that’s how boys tell girls what they’re thinking about. I studied James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” with Brandon, knowing it would take root it him, and he insisted I study The Decemberists, knowing those songs would take root in me. Lately, it hasn’t been music, but the impulse is the same: Marino emailed me links to his favorite spoken word tracks on YouTube and Drew to podcasts from The Moth. Drew muttered that I needed a better phone for listening to them, too, as he programmed his number in; I complained I can’t see all those tiny little buttons but I expect he’s right. It’s good to listen to, for, with each other. To stay in the conversation, I probably need to make friends with machines smaller than microwave ovens.

More immediately, though, I’m reading student portfolios for a Poetic Forms workshop, arguing with sleep-deprived Tal about whether he needs an article before “pose” (I’m right, but he doesn’t believe me), and writing back and forth to Annie, who reports having a hard time chatting about her poems but, in poetry’s sacred space, is honest about the very hardest subjects. Max surprised me with a poem that talks back to my own “Horror Stories,” which responds to Frost’s “Out, Out–,” which itself cites Shakespeare—that’s a discussion with some legs (audio of my poem is allegedly here, although I can never bear recordings of myself so can’t check). As I listen to them all, my window’s open to pelting rain and cardinals chip-chip-chipping in the maple. Some neighbor’s playing Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And I’m thinking I need to make copies of “Boy Breaking Glass” for Jack and “Southern History” for Amy, unless they’re reading this, I guess. You never know who’s going to pay attention, or when.