The Poetry Porch



Early this year, we sent out a call for poems under the heading poetry and song. To compensate for appearing unaware of the fact that many poems have begun as songs, and some songs have been published as poems, we listed suggestions to provide some focus. We sought poems that the authors wanted to sing or that they had sung; poems that were songs or song-like or sounded like songs; and poems that showed the influence of song, in terms of theme, incorporation of a line of a song, or appropriation of a recognized form of a familiar song. We kept the parameters broad to encourage a diversity of styles. Most submissions fit the criteria. An unintended but no less gratifying result was a diversity in tone from quiet to loud, in which some poets’ attitudes toward the readers drew them near and encouraged them to remain seated while others were more agitated and provoked a more overt emotional response.

        In looking for poetry that the authors wanted to sing or had sung, we found works that conveyed a sense of invigoration or an energized engagement. Many of these came through in traditional form, fulfilling expectations for poetic music in familiar combinations of meter and rhyme. These are the quiet poems, true to Wordsworth’s definition that an overflow of emotional feeling and a sense of privacy overtake the other elements in the poem. Creating this sweet music, a pleasing combination of meter, rhythm, and rhyme, is much more difficult than it seems. The successful poems, those that seem effortlessly created and have a satisfying quality that comes from being steeped in the lyric tradition, are rare. Other submitted poems—resembling a meditation or prayer, or a complaint with humor and a dose of irony—were written in free verse. These also have the quality of being uttered quietly as they formalize communication of one’s most inner thoughts.

        We also called for poems that were actual songs. The submitted poems included the carol, the chant, and the rock song, and defined themselves as such often through title or type-face. The song/poems can be read, but they demand to be read differently. Their visual cues—recognizable patterns, shapes of lines, and repeated phrases—present poems that direct the attention of the reader to react with strong initial emotions to some urgent appeal readily apparent on the surface. Such responses might include the impetus to get up and sing along.

        The submitted poems that were song-like or that sounded like songs raised our tolerance for repetition. We should have used the qualifier “looked like songs” because we knew we would publish them without music, and they call attention to themselves as song-like by the way they look on the page. While repetition challenges the brevity of the lyric poem, and often repeated words and phrases are taken out for the sake of being concise, the song depends on repetition. Our work on this issue became an exercise in furthering appreciation for repetition. Research confirms how much repetition is a basis of all of our life: rocking, breathing, turning a wheel. Repetition initiates a promise: when you hear a rhyme repeated, you will hope for another, and when it comes, something in you is fulfilled. A change in the rhyming pattern can signal that the end of a poem is at hand, a circle is being closed, the poem is fulfilling its arc, itself a pleasure. If a poem is to be associated with song, the repeated words, lines, stanzas, refrains should be considered, embraced, and fully written out.

        We were interested also in poems that were influenced by song thematically. The greatest number of these showed the influence of the English and Scottish ballads, taking up the familiar stories of Fair Margaret and Sweet William, Barbara Allen, and others, and often not only reflecting the names but using the actual ballad meters and phrases. The lasting influence of these originals cannot be underestimated as they continue to inform our sense of history and the stories that the people who lived in historical times remember into the present.

        The relationship between poetry and song is a lasting one with a long history. While the subtleties of differences continue to proliferate, it is important to remember that although many songs are written to be performed to a public audience, the lyric poem is an occupation of the inner self. In the words of W. B. Yeats: “Out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This quarrel is not narcissistic nor selfish, but a self-centered inquiry. The song-like elements, such as repetition of phrases, metrical patterns, and rhyme schemes, provide a structure that enhances the communication of the poem’s message and increases its likelihood of finding a lasting place in our memory.

Joyce Wilson
July/August 2009

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