Why Poetry Is Not A Branch Of Music
It was the late ’80s. I was in my teens, and on a recommendation from my teacher I had gone hunting for the poems of Geoffrey Hill. I found the Penguin ‘Selected Poems’.
One of the blurbs on the back spoke of Hill’s ‘solemn, immaculate music’. The very thing, I thought. This is going to be good. But on reading it became clear to me that what I thought of as music, and what the reviewer thought of as music in this context, were evidently quite different concepts. It was my first disappointment in poetry, although quite possibly not a fair one on my part.
The problem was meaning. Being so young, I hadn’t amassed anywhere near the range of reading and knowledge that an encounter with Hill’s poetry demands. I was much more familiar with music. I was training myself to get a Cambridge choral scholarship, and steeping myself in the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance. That music was able to rouse a deep emotional response in me, without me knowing much about the principles of its composition or its cultural context. Just the chords, the harmonic progressions and the sonorities were enough.
I hoped that the ‘solemn, immaculate music’ of Hill might come through to me in the same way, whether or not I understood what the poetry was talking about. But I was confronted with a bewildering range of literary, historical, theological and philosphical references, and my bewilderment made it impossible for me to get beyond that to the sound of the words. My angle of approach to Hill was simply too shallow – I bounced off his outer atmosphere, and back into the silence of space.
And there, I would argue, is the inherent problem with equating poetry to music. The problem is meaning.
The fundamental components of music have a deep rooting in the physical universe. A tone is air vibrating at a specific frequency. An interval is a ratio. An octave will always be an octave wherever you are, and a fifth will always be a fifth, and that simple fact gives rise to all the harmonic systems in human music. And we seem to be hardwired to respond to these physical realities in an emotional way, as part of our human inheritance. That’s why we can always appreciate music from a whole variety of human cultures at some level, however rudimentary, without necessarily knowing their language, or anything else about them.
Poetry’s not the same. The basic units of poetry – the syllable and the word – have no such rooting in physical reality. They rely on having meaning – mediated through the cultural construct of a language system.
And I’d contend that applies even to linguistic effects that might seem purely onomatopoeic, like Aristophanes’ famous brek-ek-ek-ek koax koax. If you had no knowledge of Ancient Greek, and heard that line as part of a recital of The Frogs, you might think it sounded a bit like frogs. But you couldn’t know for sure that within the context of the poetry they are just nonsense syllables. They might mean something very important in Ancient Greek that you couldn’t understand. You might hear the rest of the audience laughing, and feel OK to join in: OK, this is supposed to be funny. But your emotional response would clearly not be spontaneous, because it had to go through that mediatory function of understanding the meaning, or lack of it, first.
That leads me to the conviction that our perception of musical effects in poetry is complex, and necessarily always retrospective. We cannot begin to assign musical qualities to poetry without some rudimentary engagement with the meaning of its language. Whereas we can always recognise music as being music, and respond to it at some level whether or not we have any idea what it’s about. Which makes music and poetry two fundamentally different things, but in no way means that either is lesser than the other – or that they can’t combine together wonderfully well, even if they aren’t related.
If you are interested in reading more about the relationship between music and poetry, you can access Dominic Fisher’s essay ‘Is Poetry a Branch of Music?’ here