Poetry and Music

October 16, 2016

A poem doesn’t really begin for me until I hear its music in a voice and a line.  There might be a cloud of images, thoughts, and feelings, but it doesn’t begin to live as a poem until I hear that.  I just came across a passage from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s moving memoir, Hope Against Hope that describes this moment for her husband, the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “He would sigh with relief…when the first words in a line or stanza came to him….The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition….(M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it.)”

She describes the process in vivid detail: “The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words.  The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose.  Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole.  They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work.  This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a ‘poem’….[O]nly when the last foreign bodies have been driven out by the right word is there an end to that listening.”

Is this your sense of what it’s like to work on a poem?  Do you think it still applies in the 21st century? (I sometimes teach a class called “The Lost Art of Listening.”)



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  • Reply John Reed October 17, 2016 at 12:19 am

    “It is the sculptor’s power, so often alluded to, of finding the perfect form and features of a goddess, in the shapeless block of marble; and his ability to chip off all extraneous matter, and let the divine excellence stand forth for itself. Thus, in every incident of business, in every accident of life, the poet sees something divine, and carefully scales off all that encumbers that divinity, and permits it to be revealed in all its transcendent loveliness.”

    The Methodist Quarterly Review, 1848

  • Reply Corey Mesler October 17, 2016 at 7:58 am

    Yes, the music of a poem is very important to me. To my mind it’s almost the whole enchilada. I love to read my work aloud and sometimes I hear how clunky a poem is and sometimes, O days of fire, I hear the music I was chasing.
    The other important aspect to me is how a poem looks on the page. I might be a little anal retentive about this. If a line is one letter too long, to my eye, it makes me fret.

  • Reply Pattiann Rogers October 17, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    The following is an excerpt from my essay “A Quickening of Forgotten Fields” that appeared in the Georgia Review, spring, 2016. It refers to my poem “Grandmother’s Sister,” which appeared in River City when Sharon Bryan was poetry editor.

    As I wrote “Grandmother’s Sister” it proceeded inevitably toward
    its conclusion because of the repetition of the story, the wider view of the event
    in other seasons and global locations, and the music of the language.
    In general, I don’t trust the music of the language without question, but
    I definitely depend on it greatly as a guide and on its soul-revealing powers
    when I’m writing. I believe its strength must always be present in a major way
    in any lasting poem. Music belongs to the body, and the body must be involved
    in the poem.

    By the music of poetry, I mean the elements that constitute any type
    of music—cadence, a beat, changes in tone and pitch—and in language specifically
    the accented and unaccented syllables, regular meter or irregular,
    the audible combinations of words and their sounds, vowels and consonants,
    spaces of silence strategically placed, and the pitch of the voice, often indicated
    by punctuation. The way the eye is directed to move through the form can
    also establish a rhythm and pace. A poem, words written on a page, is like a
    score of musical notes written on a page. To my mind a poem is not actually
    a poem until it is heard, as a score of musical notes is not actually music until
    it is heard.

    I had a course called Verse Writing taught by John Neihardt when I was
    an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. That was the first time I’ d
    ever heard poetry read the way it should be read—almost chanted. The sound
    of the human voice reading a wonderful poem out loud can move and touch
    the listener like any music, sung or instrumental. The body can respond and
    participate willingly in the music of the language heard in a wonderful poem
    read wonderfully.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Pattiann, this is so apt–thank you! I am working on the formatting but wanted it out there anyway for people to read.

  • Reply Robin Behn October 17, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    Maybe it’s because I’m a musician as well as a writer, but, for me, the sound of words, lines, and finally the whole sound-shape of the poem, is there before anything else is, and develops as I write, leading the way. And when I read a poem, I listen to it, usually reading it aloud. I teach a class on performing words. The poem on the page is a score, I agree. This is not true for everyone, I fully realize and accept. Sometimes it seems to be less and less true for American poetry taken as a whole. But I am a holdout. Lately, I’m writing opera librettos, poems that go inside fiddle tunes… But that’s just the icing. The cake is the sound of the poem.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 17, 2016 at 6:48 pm

      Robin, this totally resonates with me. I too am a holdout, more listener than looker, or looking through words, seeing with the mind’s eye. I’m trying to wrap my head around the notion of “poems that go inside fiddle tunes.” Do the opera librettos begin with music that leads you there too?

  • Reply eileen cleary October 17, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    I can not say this better she did. I read it as Ars Poetica.

    “Split the lark and you’ll find the music”–Emily Dickinson

  • Reply Joan Seliger Sidney October 17, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Sharon, the semester I worked with you, writing formal poems, started me listening to the music of poems in a new way. Forms push me toward discovering the music as well as the poem I have to write. Thanks, again!

  • Reply Pat Collins October 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    When I used to teach poetry to children, I always stressed that poetry is both a written and a spoken art form and that the completed poem (not the poet) must sing to the reader in some way. I also had them imagine their words as building blocks that could be eliminated, stacked, or added to until the poem had the right structure and feel. As a visual artist, the metaphor of sculpting seemed most apt, yet I agree that the dynamics of music rule. You said it beautifully.

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