The Road Forks: Song This Way and Poem That Way

The tradition of poetry derives from music and oral performance harking back to the bards of Greece and the medieval minstrels. Ballads through the ages have been collected and published to be read. Yet in the twentieth century poetry in the popular mind resides in song lyrics, Broadway musicals, or perhaps in the hit songs of Bob Dylan.  Songs are the closest that most people ever come to poetry today.

But that is not a bad place to start. It is in fact where my classmates and I started in our methods in education course. We used Beatles’ song lyrics to introduce our unit on poetry. T.S Eliot still had the audacity to title his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Don’t tell me that the lines: “In the room the women come and go\Talking of Michelangelo” and “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .\I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” do not replay in the mind like a song lyric.

I have always contended that good poetry must have musicality; the traditional devices of poetry–rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, refrains, etc.–are used to create it. Walt Whitman’s poetry has musicality because he makes extensive use of the rhythm created by repetition of grammatical structure in phrases and clauses of the same cadence.

In his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) Stephen Sondheim asserts that his lyrics are not poems and that songs and poems are not the same. I beg to differ with him. Good poems can be sung and composers have often set them to music. Others support Sondheim’s contention, saying poetry today is of the intellect and songs are of the emotions, as if never the twain shall meet.  Commonly, poets the likes of William Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience and of audacious Whitman in his “Song of Myself” boldly proclaimed the relationship of song to poem. Not many do so today. I recall one of my poems I ironically titled “A Song to End all Songs of Love.” My poem “Song of Hononegah” was adapted as part of Fred M. Hubbell’s choral work Sinnissippi Saga, which was performed by the Community Choral and Concert Choir on April 22, 1992, in Rockford, IL. Edith Sitwell in 1922 attempted to reclaim poetry’s birthright with Façade, a collection of poems that the British composer William Walton set to music.

As long as much of modern poetry remains unmusical, academic, and obscure most of us will continue to satisfy an innate desire for poetic language with song lyrics. And that is fine with me. But I must also reassert that the best of the world’s poetry of necessity is inherently musical. The two paths have not diverged in the woods. It is primarily the academic poet who has diverged from poetry’s roots in song and choral presentation.

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