My terrible essay that I got a 57 for….

Although I got a bad mark, it connects to poetry so thought I’d post about it.  I’m also going to attempt at a couple of different essays related to the module of ‘Words & Music’ around May/June.

Blurring the Boundaries: An Argument for the Musicality of Poetry


The study of the relationship between words and music is centred around the debate on the ability to define music in linguistic terms. One way of defining music is often by describing the impossibility of the task in hand, or resorting to define it in terms of what it is not. Therefore, one might claim, music is not poetry. However, this essay will explore this statement in an attempt to prove the opposite. To do this effectively it is necessary to concentrate the argument. Poetic form will act as a starting point prior to looking at the four perspectives of voice as outlined by Simon Firth – voice as an instrument, body, person and character. Beyond this, the role of genre will be considered, along with any general arguments that arise through this exploration. In the comparison of poetry to music, the popular song will be a focal point, as opposed to classical music. As poetry itself is a vast subject of comparison, there will also be a focus on the contemporary. The aim is to establish, not only a relationship between words and music, but a blurring of the boundaries that takes place when one finds the musicality of poetry.

Although there is a contemporary bias in the argument for poetry as music, it is important to note that there is a ‘modern scholarly reluctance to interpret poetry, music, philosophy and politics in the same breath,’[1] yet in Ancient Greece they did not ‘distinguish song from poetry.’[2] This can be explained as being due to the natural associations that tie song and poetry together. Robert Bridges notes that as speech developed, humankind was ‘bound to take an aesthetic view of it, that is, to be more pleased with some sounds than others.’[3] He also states that ‘poetry selects certain rhythms and makes systems of them, and these repeat themselves: and this is metre.’[4]  Metre does not only hold explicit associations with song lyrics, but it is also related to the patterns of music itself, in the repetition of sound and rhythm. Calvin S. Brown suggests in Amy Lowell’s After Hearing a Waltz by Bartók that ‘it would be an easy task to write out the time of the entire poem in musical notation, in spite of irregularities indicating rests and syncopation.’[5] In this example, the poem’s musicality may be coincidental, and this could be argued as stronger support than when deliberate as it implies a natural association between music and poetry. However, when the musicality of the poetry is intentional, it shows the poet’s belief in the ingrained relationship between poetry and music.  For instance, this relationship cannot be denied in the case of Basil Bunting’s writing, as ‘he believed that poetry should skilfully take over some of the techniques that he only knew in music.’[6] Not only was he influenced by his love for music, he used the musical form as a model for writing; a method which he saw as essential to the success of the piece.  This can be seen in Briggflatts where ‘Bunting had Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L.33) in his mind from the outset of the poem and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from’ the ‘fells’ late spring’ (l. 4) to the ‘solemn mallet’ (l. 24).[7]

It is worth outlining obvious similarities between music and poetry in order to establish valid reason in the comparison being made here. In contrast to other art forms, both music and poetry are temporal arts, unfolding with time and reliant on one’s anticipation of what is to come. Whether in composition of poetry or reading the end product, similarly to music, sound is of major significance, and as mentioned previously, there is an importance of structure, as much of the pleasure of both art forms is contained in the patterns of rhythm created.  Brown again, asserts that ‘the impossibility of reading more than one thing at a time makes poetry incapable of really reproducing any contrapuntal or polyphonic forms of music.’[8]  However, if one takes the oral tradition of poetry, this is not entirely true, as one can see in the existence of ‘poetry choirs’, or ‘poetry collectives’, such as Aisle16 and Spoken Word All-Stars, whereby lines can run simultaneously as in song, often accompanied by instruments.   Roland Barthes analysed the historical meaning of the French mélodie and concludes it ‘derives very little from the history of music and a great deal from the theory of text.’[9]  He makes a connection between language, poetry and performance in relation to the mélodie; when encountering poetry, perhaps as opposed to prose, one needs to read the text aloud in order to engage with it.  The sound produced creates meaning in the individual’s mind.  Thus, this act of interpretation relies on the experience of the individual, which brings about the ideas of person and character as proposed by Simon Frith.

          In the same way as song, there are different layers of meaning in poetry.  Firstly, there is the intended meaning of the poet, and within this there may be a character created either as an extension of the poet, or separate from them.  When the poem is performed there may be an extra layer added through a stage persona, and lastly the multiple interpretations of the audience.  When poetry is spoken aloud, the text is brought to life because when a poem is on the page it is not fully formed; it lays incomplete and waiting for a body to give it a voice.  In explaining the idea of mimesis in poetry, Aristotle believed it ‘dramatises and embodies human speech and action.’[10]  Both are cathartic by nature, and it is when spoken aloud that the emotional expression that is embodied in the words is fully produced.  This is where the boundaries blur as ‘the music of poetry and the poetry of music are one and the same thing.’[11]  There have been surges in the popularity of poetry, and since Kenneth Rexroth noted in the 1970s, with regard to the Beat generation, ‘poetry has become once again an art of direct communication,’ poetry has seen a rise in recognition within pop culture, not only with live literature events, but also with its associations with music.[12]  Like certain genres of music, poetry can be seen as elitist.  However, the current ‘poetry scene’ is more easily comparable to a wave of underground music.  With connotations of fashion and poets achieving a celebrity status, it may be argued that this is a phase or fad, yet this merely asserts the notion that poetry and music are one and the same thing.  Between these surges of popularity ‘the geyser is grumbling underground and gathering its strength.’[13]

          Basil Bunting believed ‘music and poetry are twin sisters born of the primitive dances.’[14]  With their roots both in the body and movement it is essential to the nature of poetry that it is voiced, using the body as a vessel for its sound.  Lawrence Kramer used the word ‘gestural’ when describing the relationship between music and poetry, reflecting the idea that both ‘define their formal shape as a function of rhythmically integrated time.’[15]  The movement of the body in dance has a natural rhythm that is mirrored within the spoken word.  This can be seen in any school playground where clapping and skipping games are played such as Down Down Baby, where the rhymes are combined with hand claps, stomping feet and other movements.  The poet, Tracie Morris establishes a connection between the body and the voice as an instrument, stating ‘the body is full of these cavities that reverberate sounds.  Sounds are physical things.’[16]  The sound of words can be manipulated by the slight movement of the mouth, and in the way one’s body dictates the sound when singing, it does the same in speech.  Poets and singers are not restricted to rules of sound as both are free to fluctuate between talking and singing.  For example, PJ Harvey is categorised as a singer, yet she varies her voice considerably, at times not just talking, but whispering.  In Poeticat, a current ‘poetry band,’ Catherine Martindale performs poems which include parts that are sung in a genre they call ‘folk n word.’[17]  This leads on to the idea of the voice as an instrument which the individual, poet or singer, can use to determine the sound that is produced.

          The idea that a performance is dependent on the individual, means the performer also has the freedom to change the how the words sound and toy with the audiences expectations, for example, elongating certain words or adding extra pauses.  Therefore, the idea that a singer of popular music (as opposed to classical whereby the score dictates the singer) having less control over the sound than the poet, who ‘can never be fixed by or to a performance,’ seems archaic of Simon Frith, writing just over a decade ago.[18]  The spoken word and the sung have the same role.  Poetry is often assumed to be more concerned with meaning over sound, than lyrics of songs.  For example, in recent years there has been an emergence of genres of music such as post-hardcore, screamo, metalcore, deathcore and crunkcore, whereby a common feature is that lyrics are often screamed to an inaudible degree.  However, it is arguable that this does not necessarily mean the words have less significance.  For example, in the post-hardcore band, The Blood Brother’s 1, 2, 3, 4 Guitars, lyrics can contain poetic elements such as metaphor and simile with ‘guitar one fastens languid years to busty bones like dust and skin on a dull antique moon.’[19]  In reverting once again to the example of Tracie Morris as a poet, she experiments with ‘sound poems’ whereby the sound overtakes the meaning, as apparent within certain genres of music, originating from the Dada movement of the 1920s.    Edith Sitwell defined this type of poetry as ‘abstract poetry’ and claimed they act as ‘virtuoso exercises in technique of extreme difficulty, in the same sense as that in which certain studies by Liszt are studies in transcendental technique in music’[20]  Critics have noted that her poetry ‘seems to cultivate multiple voices… and forces a more nuanced reading of the relation of performance poetry to avant-garde experimentation,’ where words are repeated to a degree that they merge into one another and form a new sound, epitomizing the concept of the voice as an instrument.[21]  An example of the blurring of boundaries between music and poetry is I Am Sitting in a Room by the experimental composer Alvin Lucier; the piece of text is recorded and re-recorded until it becomes inaudible.  As poetry is often assumed to be more concerned with meaning, than lyrics of songs, it is interesting to note these formats, and the examples given here mark a merging of music and poetry, increasing the difficulty of distinction between the two.

          Contemporarily, the most obvious ‘musical use of spoken language’ is in rap music.[22]  Although the genre of rap is rooted in African culture, in today’s society it is unlikely that any colloquial language will be ‘misunderstood when taken over into a white town,’ at least by younger generations, not only due to multiculturalism, but also because there are less limitations in regard to popular music – sounds described as ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ have become assimilated into the mainstream and rap is one of the many genres of what is popular.  Rap is arguably not only a genre of music, but a genre of poetry, and thus bridges the gap between the two.  Without venturing into the complexities of musical history, recently rap music has seen the emergence of ‘alternative rap,’ which includes the concept of rappers distinguishing themselves as poets.  This includes artists such as Scroobius Pip, who began collaborating with laptop musician dan le sac in 2006 after working as a solo performance poet, with lines such as ‘hip hop is art, don’t make another pop hit, be smart,’ in a pastiche of rapper Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp, thus promoting the poetics of music with an emphasis on the meaning of words.  Another example is poet Kate Tempest, who performs both solo and with her band Sound of Rum, and has gradually adjusted to being described as a poet rather than a rapper, before the publication of her poetry in print.  Although there is admittedly, in some cases, a distinction that can be made between poetry for the page and that for the stage, it is no longer required for an artist to place oneself in a box in terms of an artist distinguishing oneself as either a poet, rapper or musician – one is able to bridge the gaps through defining oneself within a multitude of disciplines.

          In writing about Arabic song, Virginia Danielson stresses the importance of both sound and meaning, and notes that ‘musical genres often shared the names of the poetic genres to which their texts belonged, for instance the mawwãl and the qasida.’[23]  This raises the question as to why there is even a need for such differentiation between music and poetry.  The point that is being illuminated here is that poetry is simply a genre of music, rather than something distinct from it.  If one looks at song in comparison to performances of poetry, the components are the same.  Conversely, Peter Manuel argues ‘when a poem is set to music, it loses its literary status and becomes part of the music, with a purely musical function and value.’[24]   Whether or not poetry is a higher art form that lyric-writing is solely a value judgement, which has no function other than to create a pretence surrounding poetics, distancing it from its roots.  If the function is said to be purely musical, this undermines the importance of the words and renders the textual element meaningless.  The art of poetry is interdisciplinary by nature, thus it lends itself to an amalgamation with music, drama, and so on.  The difficulty of the issue is that it is not black and white, and it is the grey areas that make poetry so interesting.  Music is tied to the roots of poetry, and the performance of poetry serves to highlight the musicality ingrained within it through the use of the voice as an instrument.  In poetry, one is not purely concerned with the meaning of the words, but also with the sounds created, and in music, one is not just concerned with the sound, but equally desires to attach meaning to it, with the meaning often enhanced by words, where song is considered.  The function of genre is to create taxonomy for simplicity’s sake; however, once conventions are over-used, there is a welcome relief when the restrictions of genre are defied.  To separate music and poetry is to celebrate the mundane.

          One can see the similarities between music and poetry in regard to the form, features such as repetition, as well as the temporal nature of both art forms.  The roots of poetry have been established as being the same as those of music, and thus there will always be a connection between the two.  If poetry is regarded as a genre of music, one can see many sub-genres that are produced from it, such as hip-hop, the avant-garde sound poetry, contemporary performance poetry as we know it today and so on.  As new seeds are planted, and as poetry is expanded upon, the roots remain the same.  The poets themselves express the influence of music, the importance of sound and the use of voice, thus through the many difference ways of performing poetry, the unification of music and poetry is highlighted.  The poem on the page is incomplete unless sounded, whereby meaning is created and it can be fully understood as a whole.  The role of genre has its place, but it can also be a hindrance when it is used to pigeon-hole unnecessarily.  One needs to allow the boundaries to blur, to merge somewhat, in order to see the musicality of poetry.

[1] Kramer. Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After (London: University of California Press, 1984) p. vii

[2] Nagy. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 2

[3] Bridges. Collected Essays Vol. 10 (London: Oxford University Press, 1936) p. 216

[4] Bridges. p. 217

[5] Brown. Tones into Words: Musical Compositions as Subjects of Poetry (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1953) p. 26

[6] Forde. The Poetry of Basil Bunting (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991) p. 11

[7] Brinton.  The Poetry of Basil Bunting’ in English Association Bookmarks No. 61 (Leicester: The English Association, 2007) p. 3

[8] Brown. p. 39

[9] Barthes. The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 274

[10] Nagy. p. 4

[11] Kramer. p. 241

[12] Rexroth. The Alternative Society:  Essays from the Other World (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970) p. 148

[13] Rexroth. p. 39

[14] Bunting. Basil Bunting on Poetry ed. Makin, Peter (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999) p. 19

[15] Kramer. p. viii.

[16] Crown. We Who Love to be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Hinton, Laura and Hogue, Cynthia (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press , 2002) p. 223


[18] Frith. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 179


[20] Sitwell. The Canticle of the Rose Poems: 1917-1949 (New York: Vanguard Press, 1949) p.xii

[21] Crown. p. 219

[22] Frith. p. 175

[23] Danielson. Music, Words and Voice: A Reader, ed. Clayton, Martin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p. 92

[24] Manuel. Music, Words and Voice: A Reader, ed. Clayton, Martin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p. 103


About carminamasoliver

I'm an ex-UEA writer from South London. Founder of She Grrrowls. Feminist Arts Writer for The Norwich Radical. BAR poet. Published by Nasty Little Press.Currently living and working in Spain.
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