Poetry as Music: The Fundamental that Poets overlook

Music is so important to poetry, that not developing it is equivalent to being tone deaf and trying to create a song. Remember, Sonnet means “Little Song” in Italian, and lyric poetry is so named for its musical qualities. Yet so many poets omit taking the time to train the ear.

Poetry as Music

The poem, as constructed on the page or read from the stage, slides off the tongue of the reader, or sings directly inside the mind of the reader. A poem is a musical performance.

I don’t mean that the poem has music, or musical or lyrical qualities. A poem isn’t the sound track to the film, but the musical, the sonata, the, uh, fantasy and fugue, the Philip Glass soundscape, the bluegrass/Americana instrumental. Think of the music as the reason for a poem’s existence. Poetry is music.

The lyric poem that once was accompanied by the lyre in ancient Greek times has now become the lyre. Lyric poetry has become the instrument that plays itself.

How do you teach the poem as music?

It sure would help if in the rush to train future STEM achievers, schools didn’t cut back 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, dynamics and phrasing would be useful.

If you still have that old band or orchestra instrument lying around, dust off your old viola, clarinet, flute, oboe, sax, or trumpet. Learn the piano. Play and listen to the interplay of sounds in various compositions, and be aware of how they feel, what they make you think.

Read poems aloud, concentrating on the sounds of the words, notice how they break, how long sound rests in the pauses between words, the quality of sound and silence together, how sounds add emotional effects, how soft, hard, short and long accented and unaccented syllables, vowels, and consonants are, how the pitch of the American language rises and falls in its flow of sentences versus line, how that sound creates suspense and cadence.

Listen and then reflect: How does the poem do that?

Practice “finger exercises” through models and imitation. Then you will be developing performance values and ear training.

The temperament of music

Gregory Orr lists “music” as one of “The Four Temperaments of Poetry” in his essay (it appears in the excellent anthology Poets Teaching Poets). He defines it as “rhythm and sounds…” including “syntax, the syllabic qualities of English that determine rhythm (pitch, duration, stress, loudness/softness), and the entire panoply of sound effects (alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, etc.).” It is one of the expanding, or “limitless” temperaments, along with “imagination,” and opposed to the narrowing temperaments of “story” and “structure.”

Although Orr casts music in this article as something poetry “has” and “does,” I’m taking the concept a step further, as one of my Spalding MFA mentors pointed out. Music is something poetry is. This idea continues to be an ongoing conceptual revolution in how I think about poetry.

Poetry is music makes it possible to enjoy even the most difficult, allusive or opaque poems by entering into the music, rather than the meaning, and thus the emotion, rather than the intellect. It shows that understanding does not have to be the point, but experiencing is, and lack of understanding does not have to be the major obstacle to appreciating a poem.

Paradoxically, the musical performance of a poem can be the gateway not just to emotion, but to meaning.

Perhaps the poem as music is more easily appreciated than applied, but it’s one of the great lifelong satisfactions of creating poetry, and something all poets can work on that will improve and deepen your use of language in all its miraculous aspects of craft and art.

If you like this post you may also like my lesson: Imagery: The Foundation of Poetry

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