Music – In the last few years, many critics have mentioned that they think modern American poetry has no music. They may have a point. Many modern poets place too much emphasis on meaning and little or none on music. A poem needs to have many ingredients to become successful, perhaps the three most important are meaning, emotion, and music. Meaning and emotion may carry a poem but without the music will the poem be memorable? I suppose only time will tell.
I’m not sure I can tell you what makes up the music in a poem. The three most important aspects are meter, rhythm, and sound. The three are tightly interwoven, but you can have one or two without the other. In formal poetry meter takes the lead in the music, but free verse also can have music, the rhythm and the sound become more important, but don’t think free verse doesn’t have meter. A free verse poem likely has lines and stanzas that are very metrical.
Let’s look at a couplet from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” I find these lines very musical. Is there a set meter? I don’t think so. Let me scan the lines. I would put the stresses on ‘room’ ‘men’ ‘come’ ‘go’ ‘Talk’ ‘Mich’ ‘ang’ ‘o.’ Yes there could be arguments for also stressing, ‘In’ and ‘of’ but the lines are still not strictly metric. There are sections that are metric. There is rhythm though. Say those lines aloud. Feel the rhythm. Read it aloud again. Listen to the sounds. The rhythm and the sections of meter help the music but the sounds are what drives it. It could be said the sound make the rhythm. The first line has many ‘o’ sounds, the first three being very similar in sound. There are also three ‘m’ sounds and two ‘n’ sounds. ‘M’s and ‘N’s are echoes of each other. One hints at the others sound. The end of line one has hard consonants which carry into the second line and that line ends soft again. That shift in consonant sounds adds tension for a second and then relaxes it. Yes, the rhymes at the ends of the line also help the music, but the same could have been accomplished without the rhyme. Eliot also rhymed a single syllable word to a multi-syllable word.
Speaking of rhyme, be careful using rhyme. It can easily sound forced and fake. I’m a big proponent of off-rhymes. Like Eliot, you can accomplish the music with hints of similar sounds. Look at his ‘o’s in the first line. ‘room’ ‘wo’ ‘come’ are ‘o’ sounds that are not exactly like his rhyme ‘o’ sound, but hint at the similarity.
Music does not have to be euphonious or pleasant sounding. It may be harsh or cacophonous. The subject matter of the poem will dictate which you use. For example, hard consonants are great for cacophony, soft for euphony.
Mary Oliver, among many other poets, has said that there is a big difference between the right word and the perfect word. It could be that the right word carries the right meaning, but the perfect word may carry the right meaning but also include music. Our job as poets is to do the work and find that perfect word.
There are tricks to bringing music to your poems. 1) Read the poem aloud as you write it. Your ear is the best instrument to hearing music. 2) Write while listening to music. Many poets listen to jazz, some the blues, some classical. I prefer New Age. I recommend instrumental music so you don’t get lost in the vocals. 3) Play with the language, the words. Use a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. A trick to rhyming dictionaries is to expand your search beyond perfect rhymes. Recognize the echo sounds. A soft e and a soft i are very similar, for example. 4) If you can’t find the perfect word, it may not be the word that’s wrong. It may be the words around that word. It could be the whole sentence. Don’t let anything in the poem, become set in concrete. Anything can be changed and if you’re too attached to a phrase that’s likely, the part that needs changing.
Another more minor part of music is pauses. Remember pauses are punctuations, ends of lines and caesuras. Where these occur, also have a hand in the music. Let’s look at a Dylan Thomas line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I’m sure Thomas knew that the pause between the ‘rages’ would play against the meter and the music. It creates a second of cacophony in the music of the line. Intentional? You bet. Read the whole poem. You’ll understand why. As Thomas did, use music to your advantage. Use it to heighten or lessen tension, to increase the turning or leaps in a poem. Contrary to what many poets seem to think, music is important to poetry.
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