All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.
- Walt Whitman
Even if you are not a poet, there are probably words that have become an integral part of your experience in the form of favorite songs. Who hasn’t memorized a line or two that recalls a special memory or has become a mantra of sorts? And when you started reading poetry, it may have been the most musical lines that first stuck out – the pattern of rhyme, the repetition of a chorus, the alliterative love letters, the guttural wailing of onomatopoeic pain.
Think about the poets you may have read or loved as a child. Dr. Seuss, with his magical rhyme schemes and fanciful, made-up words. (Oobleck, anyone?) Shel Silverstein with his surprise endings and his chant-worthy rhythms. The entire Child’s Garden of Verse with the musical diction of Robert Louis Stevenson’s swing and shadow. Think about Mother Goose, bedtime prayers, jump rope rhymes and schoolyard hand-clapping games. You have been filled with rhythm and music longer than you know. And music is a weapon in your poetry arsenal that cannot be ignored.
When I write poems, music is essentially a part of my writing pulse. As I stated in a comment on Kathleen Kirk’s post about the double life of the poem, I wrote songs before I started “officially” writing poems, so I learned to write hearing my words out loud and matching them to the tone, mood, and length constraints of a melody. So, when I did start writing poems that were not meant to be song lyrics, the sounds of the poem remained at the forefront, as did the knowledge of line lengths and the cyclical possibilities of repetition, anaphora, and refrains.
Poets who write in form are no strangers to these “constraints” – sometimes the structure of a form poem can create a new kind of music for a writer that is unexpected or (at the very least) a change from the music of free verse. Shakespeare’s music is completely different than Whitman’s, but both of them beg to be read aloud.
One of the best things I can do for myself as a writer is to read my own work aloud – this helps me (as Kathleen mentioned in her post) to hear even the white space on the page, to get the words out of my head and into the air. With current technology making recording so easy, I have started to record the poems I think are nearly finished to hear the trouble spots, the places that I stumble or that don’t flow cohesively.
A songwriter wouldn’t dream of writing a score and leaving it only on paper, never to be played by instruments or heard by an audience. Why, then, do some poets seem unprepared or unwilling to share their poems as living, breathing works of aural art? Poetry is meant to be heard. It started as an oral tradition, and songs continued that tradition. Why mess with success? Take the next new poem you write out of your head and into air – listen to it sing.