Musical Poetry

tumblr_inline_mu9pedginU1qe6nzeThe Latin word carmen means both “poem” and “song.” Poets from ancient Greece to early 20th century Serbia accompanied their poems on an instrument, and composers have set lyric poems to music for centuries. The kinship of music and poetry goes deep, but how many modern poets secretly or not so secretly find it trite? In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Arthur Krystal wonders where the music went:

Ultimately, of course, it boils down to the personal, so let me say straight-out that the exquisite spareness of poets like Ryan and Armantrout, or the roll call of colloquial references favored by Ashbery, makes me work too hard. Yes, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens also made me work, but at least I could hear their lines playing in my head. So what I’m asking is: Do I really want to spend time figuring out the associations among words on a page and the experiences they’re meant to distill if the sound of the poem doesn’t please me?

I have the same experience over and over: a poem accosts me, in a journal, in a book review, demanding my close, reverent, critical attention, and offering only the austere pleasure of exhausting my mental muscles on its postmodern trapeze. (We’ll say nothing of coherent but music-free chopped prose. Too boring.) After quarrying away at some of these brain teasers, I become wary of bestowing my time on them. No author has a right to the reader’s attention, but poets tend to assume it, which is why the ruck of them are read only by a tiny elite.

What is poetry for? My answer: to be an embarrassing, intimate pleasure between speaking and singing. The experience of hearing a good poem recited is something like hearing a piece of music, but all the melody is sublimated into words. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, as I’m sure you remember from somewhere.

You can build that spell with “traditional” English meter, with Old English accentual verse, with syllabics, with quantity, and even with free verse, so long as the words have some human, musical cadence. As I write, I think of a moment in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo hears elvish singing in Rivendell:

At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. . . . Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him.

T.S. Eliot experienced something like this when he first read Dante: although he knew little Italian, he said, he derived pleasure just from sounding out the words, which rang with power. Poetry doesn’t have to be “accessible,” if that means “as easy to understand as a conversation with a friend.” What struck me most about this passage was the imagery of continuity: “interwoven words,” “endless river.” A poem that stays with me builds like a piece of music, adding new sections in reference to what has passed, making a powerful cumulative impression on me. But that’s just what avante garde poems generally don’t do.

I direct you to watch this reading by Christian Wiman and Rae Armantrout to see what I mean. Wiman’s poems are more traditional and narrative: he conjures his Texas boyhood for you; he rumbles an angry prayer that makes your skin sizzle. Then there’s Armantrout, who beguiled me in her interview, charmed me in spite of my suspicious self, but could not win me over to her poetry. Spoken, it is even more frustrating than on the page, since you can’t easily go back and puzzle over previous lines. Notice how each line feels like a non sequitur. Have you ever woken up from a dream, remembered it for a minute, and then found that it dissolved into oblivion when you took your mind off it for an instant? You will feel like that every time a new sentence starts in one of these poems (although “Soft Money” is not as bad). By the time the reading ended my head was cocked at a forty-five degree angle, as if I were a dog trying to understand English.

The fanciest poetry criticism is not written for the music-lovers. But they are out there, and hopefully they will find more new poetry that they want to learn by heart.


  1. Karen Ullo says

    As a singer, I have to chime in with a few words from the other side of the equation. Every song consists of three separate acts of creativity: writing the lyrics, composing the music, and creating the performance. Although a few rare geniuses can do all three, the skill sets are entirely different, and are often best completed by the symbiotic relationship of three different people. If poets abandon musicality as “trite,” they leave composers and singers little choice but to look backward, re-hashing the glory days of their art, rather than using their talents to enlighten the future.

  2. t rutkoskie says

    I heard of your website on the radio. I got the impression that it might be a place for sharing religiously oriented amateur poetry. Was this a mistaken impression ?

  3. Santiago says

    You might find a useful philosophical ally in this essay by Susan Sontag:

    “in place of hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”

    She exaggerates her case (maybe), but she provides a good polemic against the excessively intellectual approach to art and beauty.

    We should also stress that the initial pleasure that words give us invite us in to go deeper into the meaning of the poem. Eliot eventually learned Italian — but he needed the initial experience of pleasure and joy.

  4. Dena says

    I recently wrote a post elsewhere in which I commented on this very thing. “Imagine,” one says to one’s students, “Poets actually used to make a living writing poetry. People actually bought their poems.” Unbelievable–that someone would want to read the stuff they now read only because they’re required to do so by college syllabi.
    This is symptomatic of the state of all art for the past century, with a few exceptions. The arrogance, elitism, and downright intellectual snobbery has destroyed audience. Why should the artist now be surprised that he has no audience?

  5. CP says

    Meredith, you might enjoy an essay called “Poetry as Tradition” by one of those Southerners, Donald Davidson. He gives a brief history of the relationship between music and lyric in the English language, and, from that vantage, speaks about Modernist poetics. I’m sure there are more detailed histories of this sort out there, but his insight (not to mention his lucid prose) make up for his brevity.