Susan Cohen

Robert Eastwood

Aleta George

Jannie M. Dresser

Connie Post

Susan Terris

Susan Terris 11/6/21

   

IS THE MUSIC OVER? 
HAS FREE VERSE MADE US TONE DEAF? 

A Talk Delivered at the ICC Contest Luncheon
November 6, 2010

by Jannie M. Dresser

When asked what it was he liked about poetry, Theodore Roethke wrote: 

Hinx minx the old witch stinks, 
the fat begins to fry.

Childhood riddles and rhymes taught us that language was fun and magical, playful and mysterious. WORD-SOUND awoke our nascent poetic selves. 

I have been wondering if this lesson has been forgotten when I hear poems spoken at local readings or read them on the page; so many are presented as dull, semi-lifeless forms that just lie there without groove or enthusiasm. 

Once upon a time, song and poem and dance were inseparable; a poet who could not hold a tune was consider no poet at’all. Is it decades of practicing “free verse” that has left so many poets tone-deaf? Have we sacrificed joyful sound and rhythmic language in pursuit of ever more clever images and convoluted metaphors? Sometimes I wish that William Carlos Williams had stated “no ideas but in sounds,” instead of “no ideas but in things.” 

Rather than sharing a poem’s inherent and well-crafted musicality, we now have that famous “poetry-reading voice,” a kind of sustained monotone or drone that has an uplifted inflection at the ends of lines. It’s a performance shtick that often has nothing to do with the meaning in the line and everything to do with compensating for the lack of music in it. Substituting for musical form—as conveyed through meter, rhythm, rhyme, assonance or consonance, onomatopoeia, etc.—is this formulaic vocalizing of lines being passed off as poetry.

In an age overwhelmed by image, the poems of the last few decades have heavily relied on photographic, even cinematic techniques of capturing, cutting and framing scenes from observed life or memory, in order to transform subjective experience and find that perfect “objective correlative” (as defined by T.S. Eliot) to human emotion. Rather than Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” we mostly have emotion recollected or objectified through image in diverse or sequential scenes. Many poets have honed this to a high art. We also have a lot of interest in how a poem looks on a page, with little regard for how one should read it aloud or hear it in the stereo system between our ears. Here is a model for a lot of contemporary poetry as poems take shape in a kind of “form” (I was told a variation of this by a poet friend):

STANZA 1: Image or observation as noticed by a narrative voice (perhaps the poet’s, perhaps a persona). 

STANZA 2: Image or observation, etc., perhaps developing or counterpoised to the image(s) of STANZA 1. Possibly filtered through memory. 

STANZA 3: Epiphany! Culminating in an uber image that has crystallized in the narrator/poet’s heightened awareness as drawn through prior images. 

I could give you example after example from my own ouevre but suspect you have written many poems of your own using this form. I am not saying using a formula is bad, but for those who refute poetic form or so-called traditional verse in lieu of vers libre, we should acknowledge that something has become formulaic in a lot of free-verse poetry. 

The fact that many modern poets have eschewed traditional verse (too many dead white male poets, I suppose, has become an excuse for knowing the masters of English poetry) has resulted in many poetry readings where poems are not much more than prose broken by (mostly) artificial or seemingly random line breaks. Many poets cannot tell you why they have broken the lines where they do, or what overriding purpose guides their line-breaks (as in Frost’s concept of a breath line), while others have chucked the whole thing by simply renaming their efforts as “prose poems.” But, why prose poem when there has been little attention on the music in language; why not just call it prose? 

I was asked to explain a comment I made recently about a poem that I said lacked musicality. Here is what I mean. Your poem lacks musicality when:

* There is no evidence of at least some level of attention to meter (i.e., the patterns of stress and unstressed syllables in our language);
* there has been little attention to the sounds of long and short syllables or to syllable count if it would make a more interesting poem;
you don’t know an iamb from a trochee or a dactyl from an anapest (if you think I’m speaking Greek, you are right and you haven’t had a good grounding in versification);
* narrative is more important than the sounds embedded in syllables, words, lines;
* diction is commonplace rather than drawn from a wider palate of vocabulary, especially what I call a poet’s subconscious vocabulary—those intuitive insertions of words selected as much for their sound as definitions;
* you have learned how to write from the heart but have not removed the cotton from your ears;
* you over-depend on line break to make your writing look like a poem;
* you mask a poem’s lack of music by adopting either a sing-song reading style or that predictable poetry-reading voice and cast your inflections not by meaning and sounds but by line or stanza-break.

Poets are specialists of the language as no other artist can be; we are responsible for drawing out the beauty in our language’s flexibility and range. If you went to a surgeon who told you he skipped anatomy class in med school because it was passé, you wouldn’t want him operating on you. As a teacher, publisher of other people’s poetry, a contest judge, and sometimes critic, I am perhaps overly aware of the problem I characterize as a kind of tone-deafness in many contemporary poems. Because I love music, I miss real rhythm in poems, but more so a broader neglect of musicality in contemporary poetry. Even our best, most widely published poets are challenged in this way. Here is an example from a famous poet who I shall not name:

He was born one sunny Florida morning
and napped through most of his childhood.
He spent his adult life relaxing in beach chairs,
always a tropical drink in his hand. 

A strong image, surely, but it sounds like it was a feature in the Sunday entertainment section of your newspaper.

It has mostly been the impact of my marriage to a Shakespearean actor and scholar, and my efforts to learn to sing and study music that have awakened my ears to hearing poetry more as a musical art. It surprises me that our education system, in training students of literature and writing, no longer require in their core curriculum a class in prosody, nor a full history of the development of English poetry. Some colleges offer a choice between Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare: how can you possibly choose between three of the stepping stones of early English poetry, and its musical influences from Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek, Hebraic, and Italian sources? Much of what I gleaned about meter and form, I’ve learned from my husband, from the world of actors and theater, and from trying to catch up with a basic vocabulary of poetry I never learned in college as either an undergraduate or graduate student (with a few small exceptions).  

The words we use to talk about our art are derived from poetry’s skeletal music and dance structures: meter is the measure, as in a musical unit, to identify patterns of stress and unstressed syllables; verse comes from the idea of the turn in the ancient Greek chorus that was sung across auditoriums of old; sonnet, queen of the English verse forms, was originally a little song or little sound in its Italian womb. 

My wonderful Mills College professor, Marilyn Chandler, showed how many of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Go ahead: try it.

I dwell in Possibility
A fairer house than prose
More numerous of windows
Superior for doors

Of chambers as the Cedars
Impregnable of Eye
And for an Everlasting roof
The Gambrels of the sky

And why should this be so? Because Ms. Em was steeped in a Protestant hymn tradition. Walt Whitman was steeped in the King James’ Bible; his poems absorbed not only an Elizabethan poetry sensibility but the turns-of-phrase, parallelism and cataloging tradition that comes from the Bible’s Hebraic root. Umm, perhaps modern poets need to go back to church or synagogue and learn how to sing and chant once again? 

I was lucky to come to poetry through the old nursery rhyme, prayer-and-song route, the oral tradition mostly, and was furthered suckled by the incredible music of the 1960s and 1970s: 

This,
Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight,

I wish I may, I wish might, have this wish I wish tonight

Or, this:
There was an old woman 
who lived in a shoe
who had so many children 
she didn’t know what to do.

Later, I was moved by the rhythms and sounds in rock and 
R&B:
Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss

and
Why do you fill me up, Buttercup, baby,
Just to let me down, And mess me around,
And then worst of all, You never call, Baby,
When you say you will, but I love you still. 

Even the free-verse Jimi Hendrix had rich music in his poetry:

Angel came down from heaven yesterday
She stayed with me just long enough to rescue me
And she told me a story yesterday
About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea
And then she spread her wings high over me.

Poets need to take responsibility for the general public’s lack of interest in their art when we proffer so many unmemorable and un-rememberable lines. And what makes a poem memorable? In the tradition of our bardic ancestors, it was a bag of tricks the poet used to craft verse:

* repetition, of individual memes or sound units, and of entire lines;
* figurative language, which finds new ways to describe familiar things such as the kenning tradition in Anglo-Saxon poetry or the epithets of the Greeks;
* word-sound as they are linked to the ancient brain-stem that matched utterances to things;
* meter and rhythm, which is the end-result of repeated meters.

Try to memorize a dozen free-verse poems compared to poems written with more formal attention, and you will quickly understand why most of the best-loved poems are ones with strong music. If I had discovered poetry today at the average open-mic venue, I probably would not have become a poet. I go to poetry to love what language CAN DO, not just to hear about how the poet’s day went as she went about her business being reminded of something that happened a long time ago. . . 

Poetry interests us for its sounds, and the pleasure of hearing, feeling, speaking with music. Imagery and narrative are important—don’t get me wrong—but without the music, they belong to the realm of fiction and other kinds of prose. If poetry can do anything that no other art form can do, it is in its ability to marry word to sound, and in so doing heighten our sensory perception beyond a purely intellectual exercise into the body, into the kinesthetic experience that causes the skin to tingle, the heart to roar.

The true poet advances our knowledge and appreciation of language through performing these marriages—words + sound—with sensitivity, boldness, finesse, and a finely-tuned ear. To Eliot’s reminder that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job,”  I would add that no verse delights us that does not appeal to our sense of sound and rhythm. 

Copyright 2010 by Jannie M. Dresser.