Is Poetry a Branch of Music? by Dominic Fisher

Yes it is. Music may also be a branch of poetry. You could say, though, that the question is unfair, or is meaningless, or is somewhere in between. If we were preparing for a seminar we might ask ‘To what extent can poetry be considered a branch of music?’ Then we would conclude that the answer was ‘to some extent,’ but that more research was required. On the way though we would need to define both poetry and music, and maybe all art, and somehow we know that will never happen.

I ask the question because I suspect that since round about the time of TS Eliot, in some of poetry’s ramifications, the relationship between music and poetry has become more tenuous than it was. This might sound a little controversial too, considering how much contemporary performance poetry has clearly been influenced by hip-hop, and also by dub poetry before that, considering too that, in 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But there were plenty of people who were outraged at the idea of Dylan’s Nobel prize, and there are plenty more who will wince at the idea of hip-hop being poetry. Look too at the near ubiquity of free verse in any poetry magazine, including this one, and at the explorations of the outer reaches of the keyboard by late high modernists. Consider what a maverick Ian Duhig is for his use of rhyme and metre. How many other modern poets apart from Duhig and Dylan write ballads?

My forms will never warm these hares;
    not here nor there, they turn again
their free verse from my poem’s course
    for mazes their own brains lay down

from The Balladeer’s Lament, Ian Duhig, The Blind Road Maker, Picador 2016

I am not arguing that free verse is lesser poetry (and I don’t think Ian Duhig would either), or that it is less musical than other poetry, or that adherence to stricter metres or particular forms is more musical or poetic. It would be true to say that not all hip-hop is poetry, nor are all song lyrics, or ballads ancient or modern. But then not all that we are offered as poems are poems either, whatever form they take. I would say, however, that we should pay closer attention to music – and closer than we sometimes have lately – whatever poetic forms we adopt, adapt, or invent. I would also say that working within a form is a very revealing discipline, as indeed is working without one.

A last late finger of grace
still brightens far reaches
of a barbarous empire
lyrically and lovingly.
Most of what we write
time will erase.

from A Lament for the Makers, Anne Stevenson, Stone Milk, Bloodaxe 2007

My argument is that music is central in any successful poem, in whatever form, whether obviously or not. Some would go even further. Sometime in the 1980s, Basil Bunting (see below) was asked in an interview which was more important, the meaning or the music. His answer was ‘the music.’ So perhaps after all the time has come to reach some sort of understanding of what we mean by music in poetry.

The griots of West Africa are musicians, storytellers, keepers of cultural tradition – and poets. Somewhat similar were the the troubadors of 12th century Occitania and the roughly contemporary trouvères of Northern France, who profoundly influenced the early development of western European literary culture. The troubadors gave us the villanelle, which was originally a country dance song. The sonnet, originally from the court of 13th century Sicily, derives from ‘sonnetto,’ a little song or sound. In fact in most cultures past or present that you can think of, music, poetry, storytelling, and drama too have been inseparable or closely associated. And what is it that links all these most obviously? The human voice. And where is that poetry and the human voice are so often co-opted to move people to action or belief? In the pulpit, at the lectern, the street corner, the podium.

Think of Hillary Clinton’s 1995 ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ speech, the oratory of Martin Luther King or Barack Obama, Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny’ speech. What do the voices of these people do? What sets their speech apart from everyday speaking that makes it affecting, that approaches the condition of music? Most noticeably repetition combined with strong sentence stress, rhythm in fact. Coupled with this is the dramatic use of intonation – the rise and fall of pitch (patterns of these being sometimes referred to as ‘tunes’ by those studying phonetics). Alliteration is often there too, and even rhyme or at least consonance. Then there is pause, before picking up the same beat, a change in volume for example, with a sustained drop or rise in pitch.

Oratory also shares devices directly with poetry, such as rhetorical questions, grammatical parallelism, and of course the use of figurative language. And what of the voice itself? An orator (or poet or musician) doesn’t just ‘sing’ anymore than a trumpeter just blows. The instrument of the voice will use different qualities of sound. For example, when the speaker is emotional the throat constricts a little and produces a husky sound, which we sympathise with emotionally, often unconsciously (see the link to Kate Tempest below).

One other thing that oratory, poetry, and music (and other means of expression too) have in common is pattern. Indeed this is implicit in many of the features already mentioned. That pattern may be as strict and repetitive as a piece by Steve Reich or a sestina, or it may be as free as avant-garde jazz or some of the later poems of Paul Muldoon. Perhaps after all poetry is a branch of mathematics.

But poetry surely is not only patterns of sound. There is meaning too, on many levels. Words have denotation, connotations, and rich fields of association. In fact, I think when we refer to ‘music’ in poetry, in some vague sense we often mean these associations too. In much the same way we talk about ‘colour,’ meaning the vividness of imagery rather than the visible wavelengths of light.

So poetry is after all not entirely a branch of music, but each does borrow from the other, directly and indirectly. And it is a requirement of our craft that we pay close attention to the dense layers and networks of patterns, emotion, and meaning in each, so that we can reach for the undefinable, and hear it given shape in the air or on a page by the instrument of the human voice.

And if you are not persuaded that music and poetry are at least intertwined, then listen to these:   Kate Tempest, 2019  Linton Kwesi Johnson, 2011      Basil Bunting,  1966

A Date for your Diary

You can hear Dominic on Sunday 27th September at 4.00pm (BST) on The Poetry Place, on West Wilts Radio ( Past episodes are available on the ‘Play Again’ page –

About the contributor

Dominic Fisher has been widely published in magazines and his poems have been broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2018 he was the winner of the Bristol Poetry Prize, and his collection The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dead was published by The Blue Nib in March 2019.

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  1. Love this article, Dominic. Poetry can never be separated from its aural tradition, poetry on a page pales in comparison to poetry read aloud. Thank goodness for the rebirth of spoken word poetry, performance poetry and even slam poetry, bright lights in an art form that was otherwise losing its way.

  2. We ar talking lyrics rather than music, even though lyrics have to be taken as a prtnership with their music. Yes, of course, the spoken word was nearly lost, the story tellers silent, the bards disappeared. And a poem listens to music in the heart of the poet when they write it.

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