Poetry, like any other sport, has fundamentals. You wanna be a competitor, you gotta get the fundamentals down. Otherwise you gonna have no game. But for some reason poets always forget about this one. Yet, it’s so important, that not having it is equivalent to boxing with a glass jaw. And so many poets do not have it and do not take the time to train it. And it keeps them in the amateur division.
What fundamental am I talking about? That poetry uses lines? Nah, they get that, more or less, eventually. That word choice matters, that poets ought to read other poets, that revision is a good thing? That poetry ought to move us through emotions and experiences by using imagery, and not hit us over the head with statements? That rhyming well is hard, and that being witty is harder? I could go on. I get a lot of fresh-faced poets in college who resist all these things, especially a good number of millennials who think I don’t know nothin’. Maybe ’cause I’m “old,” and therefore suspect, or maybe because the whole enterprise of learning and practicing goes against instant-gratification, one-click get-to-the-goal spontaneity.
Hey, but this post isn’t about millennials, it’s about teaching people who are interested in learning, no matter what cohort they belong to. There’s still plenty of those. The rest, can’t teach em, so not part of this conversation.
All those fundamentals I mentioned above, there’ll be time for those in other posts. But they aren’t the most important one that poets always forget about and need the most work on, because it’s the hardest one. It’s this one:
Poetry is Music
Far as I’m concerned, if you want to be a contender in the poetry world you have to know this-you have to be able to put this into practice-perhaps after painstaking revision. Poetry. Is. Music.
And although there is amazingly good slam poetry and other live performance poetry-literally people who can kick my ass in their amazing recitation style and the excellent words that they build upon, I do see the incorrect attitude that if you say any cliché with emphasis and rhythm you are now a poetry big-shot and a poetry musician. No, sorry. That’s not what it is – “poetry is music” means —
–that poetry is not:
A lyric accompanied by music – nope
A bunch of statements with a repetitive monotonous rhythm – nope
Something that you perform well despite the lack of its inner music – nope
It’s not in the scaffolding around the poem. It is that—
above all, the poem itself, as constructed on the page, sliding off the tongue of the reader, or speaking directly inside the mind of the reader, is the performance. I mean that the poem itself is the music, said music also being the very reason for its existence. I’m not saying that the good poem “has musicality,” or “has lyrical qualities.” I’m saying that poetry is music.
Or to put it another way, that the lyric poem that was accompanied by the lyre in ancient Greek times has now become the lyre. Poetry has become the instrument that plays itself.
But how do you teach that fundamental?
It sure would help if in the rush to train future scientists schools didn’t throw out training future musicians. A passing acquaintance with some musical instrument or choir and some ideas of musicality such as the arch of melody, breath, rest, cadence, not to mention dynamics and phrasing would be useful. So, performance values and ear training, you see.
It’s not just a simile to compare language to music. Language is music and that’s no metaphor.
But what do you do to educate a giant cohort within a generation that has tin ears, having had no basic musical training whatsoever, into the endless melodic possibilities of English? That’s the subject for another post on this fundamental. My objective here was to get this most difficult concept of all to learn about poetry out in the open. I think this requires an entire course. I’m not sure one semester is even long enough. I think it takes more than a year to train the ear. But we don’t have that luxury. In the meantime, I have some ideas. But until the next post, I’m open to suggestions.