Music and poetry have existed alongside each other for many years. The question of whether poetry is improved by music is an interesting one. People who do not enjoy traditional poetry often find that they have a passion for music with lyrics. Arguably, lyrics are a form of poetry and, through the medium of musical performance, people are able to understand the meaning of the words on a deeper level than if they were to simply read them on a page. Nevertheless, as there are many types of music there are also many types of poetry. Some poetry can be complemented and enhanced by music. Other types of poetry, however, are unlikely to work with music. Whether poetry is improved by music depends on the type of poetry.
Program notes for Dubussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” said, “The relationship of music to poetry (at least philosophically) was never closer than in France in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The great symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s attested poetic purpose was ‘to use words in such harmonious combinations as will suggest to the reader a mood or a condition which is not mentioned in the text, but is nevertheless paramount in the poet’s mind at the moment of composition.’ Mallarmé sought to duplicate, through poetry, the effects of music, to do what music did better than any other art, express the inexpressible” (Music).
The concept explored here is that music can add diction and meaning to a poem that was originally on the page. It is commonly thought that music touches people on a different level to the written, or even the spoke, word. As Mallarmé pointed out, at times the effect of a song is encompassed more within the unspoken suggestion rather than in the literal meaning of the words themselves (Music).
Poetry is an often misunderstood art form, even today. Many people consider poetry to be inaccessible to all except to those who are poets or scholars of poetry. Such people claim that they don’t understand poetry. However, the vast majority of people claim to like at least one kind of lyrical music and, moreover, say that they understand the meanings within it.
There are certain artists that can be accurately referred to as both poets and musicians. One example of such an artist is Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen has written many songs which have risen to considerable popularity. “You’re Missing” is just one of his songs. The lyrics contained within “You’re Missing” are poetic but are, nonetheless, plain. The opening stanza, or verse, reads: “Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall / Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all / Everything is everything / Everything is everything / But you’re missing” (Springsteen, lines 1-5).
Simply seeing these lines on the page leaves the reader with a mild sense of what the words are about, but they do not rouse much emotion. However, when the reader then listens to the recording of Springsteen singing the words, along with musical accompaniment, the tone and the meaning are far clearer and poignant. The words undoubtedly have much more weight to them when heard in conjunction with the music.
However, there are some poets whose work can only be read on the page. Such works could not successfully be read aloud, and certainly could not be put to music as Springsteen’s words are. E.E. Cummings is one such poet. Although Cummings wrote a great deal of traditional poetry, such as sonnets, he also did a significant amount of experimental works. A helpful example is Cummings’ “The Cubist Break-Up.” This work is separated into thirteen, relatively short, poems. Each of these poems is in a different layout on the page. Part 4, for example, reads: 1(a // 1e / af / fa // 11 // s) / one / 1 // iness” (Cummings, p. 39).
Anyone would be forgiven for not understanding this poem of Cummings’. However, regardless of whether a reader does or does not comprehend the meaning of this poem, few would argue that it could or should be put to music.
However, not all poets write in such an abstract way. Philip Larkin, for example, has written some poetry that is, arguably, accessible to anyone who is basically literate. “This Be The Verse,” for example, opens:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you” (Larkin, lines 1-4).
Unlike “The Cubist Break-Up,” this poem uses straightforward language in an easy to read format. It is conversational and has a very clear meaning behind it. Larkin continues in this style throughout the poem and right until the end, the final stanza reading:
“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself” (Larkin, lines 9-12).
While Larkin’s “This Be The Verse” is a lyric poem, there are narrative poems which are equally simple to grasp and appreciate, even for individuals who do not study, or particularly enjoy, traditional poetry. Mark Ford’s “A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts” is a narrative poem from his book Landlocked (Ford, 1992). It consists of an anecdote, told from the perspective of a door-to-door salesman. The speaker tells the audience of the time he discovered a swimming pool full of peanuts in someone’s back garden.
This work is an excellent example of how poetry need not be even partially abstract, nor use complicated language. It demonstrates how poetry can be in many different forms, and in very different styles and tones. Ford uses conversational language right from the start of his poem and continues with this style throughout. The following extract provides an example:
“Well this is a hoax I can tell some monkey’s idea
of a good joke for who’d fill up a fair sized swimming-
pool with peanuts unless they’re painted in
which case it’s a nice piece of work so I
kneel down in my best suit on the edge…” (Ford, 1992).
The language is simple to read and to understand. This is probably the reason for why “A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts” is one of Ford’s most widely appreciated poems. It is accessible to many people, as even those who have little or no knowledge of poetry can read and understand it. Moreover, the poem contains unusual but lively humour, which tends to appeal to most.
“A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts” is written in loose blank verse. Ford has used very little punctuation throughout the piece. This can also be attractive for people who do not read a great deal of poetry, as they have the freedom to read as they choose, with only line breaks giving them set, but easy, pauses. The poem reads like a stream of consciousness, and this adds to its conversational manner. It also has a good pace and plenty of musicality. It is exciting and moves forward quickly, which is likely to hold the attention of even the most reluctant reader.
A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts, on first read, appears to be a solely humorous, light-hearted anecdote. However, when I read it more carefully I noticed all kinds of ways that Ford has used to give us an insight into the character of the narrator. An example is when the speaker talks of his concerns with what might be hidden underneath the peanuts:
Reason I’m feeling all queasy this pool full of peanuts
Is disturbing my eye won’t focus in case in an instant
They turn into piranha fish and green mambas
Or anything else that might be hiding down there” (Ford).
The notion that there may be such things beneath the peanuts is, arguably, ridiculous, and this example of the speaker’s thoughts gives the reader an insight into the character of the narrator. This type of detail is important, especially for people who do not appreciate more abstract poetry with hidden meanings.
Another element of the Ford’s writing that features superior characterization is where the speaker retrieves a golf club from his car and begins to hit the peanuts with it:
“… I go back to my car and open up the trunk
I take out my golf-bag I select a nine-iron
And without a thought for my own safety I head back
To the pool and I swing away reckless in that peanut bunker
I scatter peanuts like a madman all over around there
They go flying like sand-flies in all directions like golf-
Balls they arc away and shower down like buff-coloured hail
And I thrash and flail like one possessed…” (Ford).
It is possible that the speaker is, as he suggests, a ‘madman’. Ford has used the show not tell technique regarding the character. This is effective and provides further appeal to those who disfavor traditional poetry.
As there are different styles of music, there are also different styles of poetry. Some poetry can fit very well, and indeed be enhanced by the presence of musical accompaniment. The music of Bruce Springsteen is an excellent example of this. However, the work of other poets would be practically nonsensical if it was combined with music. Poetry can be simple to understand, with or without music alongside it. As only certain types of poetry are effective as song lyrics, whether or not poetry is more successful within music depends on the both the musical and poetical preference of the individual.
Ford, M “A Swimming Pool Full of Peanuts.” Landlocked. 1992. Print. Chatto and Windus: NY.
Cummings, E.E. “The Cubest Break-Up.” Selected Poems. 2007. Print. Norton: USA.
“Music, Poetry and Meaning.” Donskiff. 2004. Web. 23 April. 2011. http://donskiff.com/music_poetry_and_meaning.htm