Poetry and music have always been closely related. Perhaps the most basic element shared by the two is rhythm. Langston Hughes, for example, has talked about how fundamental rhythm is to human culture. Poetry can contain many different kinds of rhythm at the same time: Individual lines may be composed in the regular patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that we call meter, but there is also a rhythm between lines, as metric patterns are repeated or varied. Repeated sounds, whether of end-rhyme, or internal rhyme, or the subtler echos of half-rhyme, to say nothing of other devices such as assonance and alliteration, all combine to create a complex rhythmic fabric.
T. S. Eliot once wrote that poetry begins with a drum being beaten in a jungle, retaining "that essential of percussion and rhythm." The idea that the rhythm of poetry holds a kind of archaic appeal for its listeners is common, and it is often paired with another notion: that such elements as rhyme and rhythm are rooted in childhood pleasures. Children certainly enjoy repetition and wordplay, and nursery rhymes could easily fill a CD all by themselves. But children's rhymes also show us that the archaic pleasures of verse can be quite practical: they help us to remember: "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November." Every society can trace its ancestry back to a preliterate time, and for such cultures, the musicality of verse, its dependable rhythm, was a powerful aid to memory.
How many examples can you collect of verse that is primitive, childish, but very much a part of the everyday world- counting rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, other kinds of formulaic language to accompany games, advertising jingles...?
【Poetry as Music】
Sometimes the relation between poetry and music is very close indeed, as in the case of song lyrics or ballads. Consider one of the poems on this website, the ballad of "Sir Patrick Spens." Click on its title to see the text, and read it to yourself silently. Then click the speaker icon to hear the ballad performed.
What is there about the ballad form that lends itself so well to being sung? If you look at a book of hymns, you will find that many are written in "common meter," which is identical to the ballad stanza. Of course, ballads are not the only poems that can be sung. Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is an example of the sort of Renaissance lyric that might be sung but could just as easily stand alone as a poem. Are there poems on the website that would probably be difficult to set to music? Which ones? Why? Could a poem in free verse be sung?
Many of the poets (including Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, and Auden) have had some of their poems set to music, and Langston Hughes had a significant career writing for the musical theater. Go to a library and see if you can find musical settings of work by some of these writers. Does the music sometimes function in the same way that a good interpretation does? That is, does it help you to understand, or to feel, what the poem is about? Out of a particular author's body of work, why have certain poems been set to music and not others?
【Poetry with Music】
Poems do not need to be written literally as songs to be associated with music. They can also be accompanied by music when they are read to an audience. Some of the earliest poetry in English was linked with music in this way. The Old English long poem Beowulf, for example, was not read privately, but rather performed for an audience; during performance, the poet was accompanied by music played on a harp.
If the practice of performing poetry with a musical accompaniment goes back to the early Middle Ages, it has flourished in the twentieth century as well. The Beat poets of the 1950s introduced the idea of listening to poems being read in the informal setting of a coffeehouse or a jazz club, often to the accompaniment of jazz. Allen Ginsberg, author of "Howl," is the Beat poet who most fully explored the consequences of letting different kinds of poetry and music reflect and influence each other.
Most college or public libraries carry a variety of recordings of poetry being performed to music. Listen to some examples of poetry and music, and then write an essay in which you define the difference between this experience and that of listening to popular music. How important are the lyrics of rock songs to the actual experience of the piece? Is it possible for popular songs to have the subtlety and complexity of language that characterizes the best poetry? What is the effect of the jazz background to a poetry reading? Is it fundamentally different from the effect of the music in a rock song? How do you read poetry differently after having heard it recited to a musical accompaniment?
【Music as Metaphor】
What happens when the music is neither a part of the poem itself, as it is in a song, nor a background against which the poem may be heard? Sometimes music is only an analogy or a metaphor, a ghost we are invited to imagine we hear. Langston Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues" contains a small sample of the blues form, but more importantly it receives its inspiration and many of its conventions from the blues. The setting of the poem, its subject matter and mood, and even its diction owe something to the blues.
Poets have been invoking song for centuries, from Virgil's "Arms and the man I sing," which begins his epic The Aeneid, to T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Does "I sing" for Virgil just mean "I'm writing a poem"? Do the rich associations of the love song influence our reading of Eliot's poem, which, on the surface, seems nothing like a love song? Many of the poems on this website and in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Norton Introduction to Poetry mention music in one form or another. Browse the poems on the website and see how many references to music you can find. Does the idea, or the metaphor, of music function in different ways in different poems? What kinds of poetic statement are enhanced by means of this recurring image of song?
Music may also be present as an echo or a memory in a poem that is not otherwise a song. What happens, for example, when a musical form such as the ballad is used to write a poem that never had a musical setting? "Sir Patrick Spens" was written to be sung, but although W. H. Auden was very much interested in the relation between poetry and music, his" As I Walked Out One Evening," which is also written in ballad stanza, is primarily a poem to be read. As you read it, think about what relation the ballad stanza, with its associations of simple folksong, has to the subject matter, and even to the diction of this poem. Is Auden's poem a parody of the ballad, or is the effect more complicated than that? Emily Dickinson's many poems almost all use a loose form of the ballad stanza, and yet none of them were originally written to be heard in musical settings. What do Dickinson's poems gain from the use of this stanza? Are they songlike in other ways?
Can you find other poems that use musical forms, or call themselves songs or ballads, but do not seem to have been written with musical performance in mind?