Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Write Poetry: Part 4, Spoken Music

We speak music. We’re not always aware of the sounds of our words, but speech is constantly morphing into music. Rhymes pop up in everyday banter, meters appear in unlikely phrases. Poetry just makes those natural patterns more evident, more closely bonded to meaning.
Unlike prose, poetry is essentially a spoken art. Fiction and nonfiction can be read out loud, but poetry is meant to be read to live human beings. Poetry is composed to create the music of phonemes.
Some of the poets I admire the most are the ones who can make words into music, without gilding the lily. Why do so many people commit their favorite poems to memory? There is a power in the rhythms of words when they are activated by syntax and meaning.
One of the first times I really fell in love with poetry was when I was attending the Bronx High School of Science (not the most likely venue for poetry!). My sophomore-year French teacher, Janice Gerton, who is now in her 90s and remains an active fan of literature, recited to the class a poem she had memorized by the poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). The poem begins like this:

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Loosely translated, it sounds like this in English:

Tears fall through my heart
Like rain tears through this city;
What’s this anguish like a dart
That lands in my heart?

(translation © 2012 by Zack Rogow)

Verlaine’s poem (I’ve only quoted one stanza) is so haunting because the sounds of the words recreate the murmur of the rainfall that is filling up the city. The repetitions are oddly soothing, given that it’s a poem about deep and incomprehensible sadness. Somehow, hearing or saying a poem this musical allows us both to feel our own sorrow more deeply, and to begin to heal from it. A poem such as Verlaine’s is like a magic spell, where the words create an actual physical effect in the world.

 I have a personal list of poems I particularly enjoy where the music is extremely effective for me. Here are some of my favorites, in no special order:

Edgar Allan Poe, "Annabel Lee," “The Bells,” “The Raven”  
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “There’s No Messiah for a Broken Mirror” (in Urdu)
Sahir Ludhyanvi, “Your Voice,” “Taj Mahal” (also in Urdu)
Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances,” “Invitation au Voyage"
Arthur Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre”
Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially XVIII, XXIX, XXX, LV, CXVI, CXXX
Ezra Pound’s version of "The Seafarer" translated from Anglo-Saxon
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” (read here by Stanley Kunitz), “Pied Beauty”
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, opening lines
June Jordan, “On Your Love,” “On a New Year’s Day,” “Roman Poem #14”
Ntozake Shange, “Orange butterflies aqua sequins…” (at 6:00 into the video), “Somebody almost made off wid all my stuff”
Sekou Sundiata, “Space,” “Blink Your Eyes”
Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Waters of March” (Águas de Março,” sung here by the immortal Elis Regina)

Those are poems that I love to recite or sing or hear read over and over, just to experience how it feels to say those words, and how they sound out loud.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer


  1. Thank you for the read. Honestly you covered the topic and broadly examined all areas. If i was to write this i would have done a few things differently myself but you have definitely inspired me to get the world of blogging.

  2. David: Thanks for your comment. If you'd like to add names of a few poems where you enjoy the music of the words, please do. Zack

  3. I like your poetry! Nice style!

  4. Thanks for making such a cool project. I've been checking the site for the Windows version, but I never left a comment about it. I know you are working hard and doing it for free so you shouldn't feel rushed or anything. I hope you can continue this type of hard work to this site in future also. Because this blog is really very informative and it helps me lot.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Oleg. I'm glad to hear the blog is helpful to you! Zack