Essay by Denis Joe
Take Away The Noise And There Is Little To Say
I recently attended a debate on the relevance of poetry today. Aside from the fact that poetry, like all art, moves with the times and thus is relevant, it was the way in which the speakers talked about what makes poetry relevant that made me feel uneasy.
It seems that poetry can never be justified on the basis of its craft. There always has to be some referral to other activities particularly song writing. It was the manner in which one of the speakers talked about Morrison, Dylan and even Morrissey as ‘poets’, and the way that there seemed to be an acceptance of this, as if it were a fact, that, initially, annoyed me, then got me thinking about why this is done. It seems that there is some embarrassment about poetry as a unique art form. The usual argument about the ‘relevance’ of poetry starts off by saying that the art is viewed as elitist and then goes on to say that ‘poetry is all around us’. Which rather sounds like an elitist statement: suggesting we are too stupid to see it.
The truth is poetry is not ‘all around us’. Advertisers, campaigners of some issue or other and even MP soundbites, may well utilise aspects of poetry, but few would see it as anything more than a jingle; a slogan or a vacuous statement. But none of these things can be called poetry, because they are created for a different function.
Like all other art forms, poetry has its own rules and tools that allow us to recognise it as something unique in itself. These rules alter over time because the material that is used to give poetry its form- language- is in constant flux. Also the manner in which that language is conveyed changes, creating new ways of expression. For example mobile-phone texting and Twittering, do away with, mainly, vowels. All this, and more, contribute to what Peter Levi described as The Noise Made By Poems[i] .
It is the noise that poetry creates that makes it unique. The major difference between poetry and prose is that prose uses the language to inform: words are used for their meaning in order to explain what is happening within a narrative[ii]. In poetry words are, primarily, used for the sound that they make rather than their meaning. In many respects poetry is more akin to music than it is to ‘creative writing’. Poets use words in the same way that the composer uses musical notes, to create - what Varèse called - ‘organised sound’. Poetry is, itself , organised sound. Using the tones and pitches of the language to create soundscapes. The reader/listener is initially struck by the melody that a poem produces. This can be heard most discernibly in children’s rhymes; above all, the ‘nonsense’ limericks of Edward Lear. The love of the sound, rather than meaning of the word, in Lear’s poetry is what makes them so valuable in understanding how a poem works[iii] and how the sound of a word (like the sound of a musical chord) elicits an emotional response. The humour of Lear’s limericks lay, not in their meaning, but in the way that the words create a feeling in the listener/reader. The nearest equivalent in music is perhaps the oboe pieces, that represent the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or the xylophone in Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. Both suggest an awareness, by the composers, of the humourist response that these portions of their work will elicit in the listener.
As with music, the melody of a poem will either attract or repel the reader. If a reader comes across a poem that they cannot find melody in, they will, no doubt, reject it. Even hearing a poem being read out to us, may well colour our response. As with singing, different readers will provide a different interpretation (not a literal interpretation, though this may be the case as well) of the same poem. The tonality of a voice and regional accent all play a part in how we hear a poem and, thus, how it impacts on us emotionally. And to pull another comparison with music composers, it was often said that Stravinsky was not the best interpreter of his own compositions. Anyone who has heard a recording of TS Eliot reading his own work may well wonder how something that reads as beautifully as The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock can sound as annoying as a wasp trapped under a Styrofoam cup. The BBC English accent of old, is not a voice that lends itself to poetry (or anything else that requires an emotional input greater than that of a Q Tip).
The Minstrel In The Gallery
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
[You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go Bob Dylan]
. . .wishful thinking, there.
But whatever we may think, millions view Bob Dylan as a poet, even though a song lyric bears not even the remotest resemblance to a poem. Poems, as we have noted, contain their own music and it is this that creates the initial impact of a poem. Song lyrics either have the support of a musical accompaniment or are used to support a tune.
But there is also another use for lyrics and it is the same use that the strolling minstrels of medieval Europe had when relating tales and news to the illiterate peasant population. They were providing literal ‘meaning’ to narratives. They brought news and stories that provided moral lessons (akin to Aesop’s Fables) to people who had hardly any experience beyond the village boundary. Music acted as a memory aid, and to reinforce that point, repetition was also used. For the most part the lyrics could stand alone as poetry. Some of those lyrical forms that minstrels created are still used today by poets; the villanelle (though, it should be noted, this is not the villanelle as we know it in its stricter form, that dates from the Renaissance. The earliest known villanelle is by Jean Passerat [1534–1602]), ; the sestina and, most popular of all, the ballad. All have an immediacy about them that belies their sophistication. The sestina, for example, is widely acknowledged as the most difficult of forms for a poet to attempt, even though its origins are so humble.
The Renaissance of the 15th century helped to hasten the demise of the minstrel tradition and laid the basis for modern poetry.[iv] Whilst verse form such as the sonnet and terza rima created a lyricism of their own, the poem (or ‘lyric’) ceased to be a way of narrating a message and instead became a conduit of imagery, using language as a conveyance in the same manner that painters used colour and light.
The minstrel tradition of lyric and song never totally died out. It still existed in many agricultural parts of the world and within sections of the growing proletariat, in what we now refer to as ‘folk’ music. Composers such as Bartok and Vaughn Williams travelled their respective countries recording the music. It was in the mid-19th century Britain that the ballad – as - poetry - form saw the growth of anthologies of lyrics such as Palgrave’s Treasury of English Song and Lyric (first published in 1862). As a poetic form the Ballad became very popular, especially amongst the Victorian middle-classes who saw in it the ability to accommodate a narrative that could carry a message. And there were many poets who were willing to come up with the goods.[v] Poets such as Rudyard Kipling; staunch supporters of British imperialist design, who could create poetry that reflected both the glory of the Empire and that praised the characteristics of the individuals who helped maintain British rule in the colonies. Lyric poetry, and the Ballad in particular, served the interests of the Empire by popularising the expression of pride, and resolve for its continuation.[vi]
The simplicity and directedness of the Ballad made it a perfect vehicle for all manner of social and political engagement, even as expressions of anti-establishment feeling.
There are many pieces that began life as poems and are, today regarded as song lyrics. Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit was written as a poem by a Jewish teacher, Abel Meeropol protesting the barbarity inflicted upon the black people of the southern States.
And singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger would go on to compose Ballads that expressed their political commitments. But the Ballads they wrote needed the support of an external music in order to exert or impose an emotional response.
Take this opening verse
Come fifty-one percent of the population and listen to my song,
It's got but fifteen verses, It won't detain you long;
It's all a-bout four housewives - We took a little risk.
And how we got the title of the Housewife Terrorists
of a Seeger song. Whilst it has a semi-humorous feel, nothing in the structure of it contains anything other than to call on the reader to, passively, listen to the story. We gain nothing more than the story told in an entertaining manner. The use of vernacular, a common feature of song writing, serves no other purpose than to help make the message clear for that fifty-one percent. And whilst vernacular in this Ballad does not raise anything new and contributes nothing to our understanding and experience of language, as poets from Thomas Hardy to Tom Leonard do in their works, the use of the vernacular seems to reinforce a pessimistic view of low expectation.
Compare that to
Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."
by A.B. Patterson. Waltzing Matilda began life as a poem, but most of us are familiar with it as a song. This ballad works without the musical accompaniment. The vernacular takes us to another world, in the same manner as Lear or Carroll or Joyce. We are not being told what to think or how to respond. In this poem Patterson achieves what Dante managed with his poetry in praise of Beatrice di Folco Portinari in Vita Nuova: He take us to the event.[vii] Whereas Dante uses ‘high’ (by today's standards) language in order to transport the reader/listener, Patterson take us into a sound-world that seems to be beyond all reasoning: A word such as ‘billabong’, with the two stressed syllables that seem to be in opposition to each other, abound throughout the poem (the ‘ee’ sound in bill – suggesting pleasure - stands polar to the sombre sound of bong, for example). We do not really know how to react and it may be that our insecurity drives us to laugh at the word billabong. The popularity of Waltzing Matilda should not blind us to the fact that this is an outstanding use of the noise of language.
This highlights another characteristic of the Ballad form: It relies heavily on communities. Patterson use of strange words may have been familiar to the Australians. The words derived from a mixture of English usage and aboriginal language that may well have served as an expression of republican desires.[viii]
Conclusion: No One Here Gets Out Alive!
In these times of vocational education it comes as no surprise that Bath University offer a Master’s degree in song writing. And throughout academia there have been PhDs claiming that the lyrics of Bob Dylan, in particular, are poetry. On National poetry day in 2007 children were instructed to study Dylan’s work with the aid of a special "Dylan Education Pack".[ix] It seems to be that because a song writer comes across as “meaningful” that their work is then raised to a higher artistic pedestal.
If you call someone a duck enough times then, one day they will say “quack”. And so we have had poetry collections from Dylan (Tarantula is in the stream-of-consciousness style of Dylan's liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home. The publisher did our beloved author a great disservice in labeling these writings "Poems." – This was lifted from Amazon’s site. I think it says it all in an honest way); Patti Smith (Her poetry is good, it’s just not that good), John Lennon (Unbelievably a serious publisher, Jonathan Cape, actually published two volumes of Lennon’s drivel. Admittedly this was before he went on to record two of the worst songs ever: Imagine and a Working Class Hero. But still, someone should have proofread In His Own Words and A Spaniard In The Works, before showing him the door) and Jim Morrison who could afford to self-publish two collections before realising there was an easier way to inflate an ego: Front a rock band man! Get stoned and show everyone your willy. Also there are two, very dreary, volumes of his poetry published since he passed on (saving him the trouble of dying of embarrassment, I guess!).
Most famously is the poet turned pop singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen who, dismayed by his failure to become Canada’s poet laureate, became a gravelly-voiced singer instead. Hit legendary status and wrote the nearest a song could get to being poetry, The Partisan. There is still a collection of his poetry available. Read it and weep! It’s that bad.
But seriously. Confusing song writing and poetry overlooks the vast difference that exists. It is a sad reflection on the desperation of those poets who latch onto the shirttails of pop/rock songsters. It does nothing to further the cause of poetry, in fact it simply ends up making poetry out to be the poor relative of song writing.
In short: It’s simply embarrassing!
[i] Peter Levi. The Noise Made By Poems. Anvil Press Poetry. 1984
“Poetry is about reality, but its material is the whole language. The most naïve writer may at some time be the best, because he is the truest[my italics]. The best poet is certainly the one nearest to the bones of his language.” [p. 83]
[ii] Sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Most famously, the ‘night and day’ novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Listening to Joyce reading, the prose certainly sound poetic. And is a vast improvement on the dreadful early poems of Joyce. These last two ‘novels’ are also an advancement on creating a musical ‘literature’.
[iii] Whilst Lear’s Limericks were written for children, Holbrook Jackson points out that other writers had the same approach to using words for their sound; “Lear is an adept at the game of monkeying with words. Like Rabelais, Swift and Joyce he had a genius for fantastic verbal adventures . . “ [The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. Holbrook Jackson (ed.). Faber and Faber. London 2001. P. xxvi] One could also add Lewis Carroll. It is interesting to note that Jackson includes James Joyce and has, perhaps, the Thunderwords of Finnegans Wake in mind. But Joyce also ‘plays with the language’ in other ways. The opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has the father telling a story to his son:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...
Whilst it certainly sounds like nonsense much of it represents a vernacular that was (and perhaps still is) very much a part of the real world. We will return to vernacular in a later essay.
[iv] For a brief discussion on the impact of the Renaissance on poetry and literature see chapter 2 of Dante: Poet Of The Secular World by Erich Auerbach. Trans. Ralph Manhiem. nyrb. New York. 2007. First published in Germany in 1926, the Auerbach’s central premise still maintains its ability to shock.
[vi] “Emotional intensity is especially characteristic of LYRIC poetry – the kind of poetry that evolved especially for the expression of powerful feeling.” [The Prosody Handbook. Robert Beum and Karl Shapiro Dover Publication. 2006. P.68]
[vii] Auerbach op. cited p. 34 - 37
[viii] To be looked at in greater detail in an essay on vernacular
[ix] see Bob Dylan is a genius, but he's no poet by Sam Leith. The Telegraph. 3rd September 2007