Poetry and Popular Music

Originally in Roundyhouse

Where have all the poets gone,
long time passing?
Where have all the poets gone,
long time ago?
Gone to music, every one.

       Yes, I know this is a wild exaggeration. But this disrespectful parody of the superb Pete Seeger song does say a little about what I see as the relationship between poetry and popular music. A little, that is, but far from everything. Let me elaborate. It would probably be more accurate if I were to ask 'where have all the potential audiences for poetry gone?' There are still plenty of poets around. But most write largely for other poets these days. This wasn't always so: the five volumes of poetry published during the early years of the reign of King George V under the banner of 'The Georgian Poets' sold in their thousands.

       The poetry of the Georgians was mainly lyrical, pastoral and accessible - the essence of 'what poetry should be' for many members of the general public to this day, in fact. And, no, I'm certainly not going to argue that we should aim above all else for poems that will please that public, even though it saddens me to see too many poets equating obscurity with profundity when they write. Anyway, it's far too late for would-be popular poets to try to muscle in on what has firmly become the province of the pop industry.

       So, do I believe that much popular poetry has been displaced by popular music? Is poetry no more than music with the jangly bits left out? I think the first is true, but hope no-one thinks the latter is. The relationship between poetry and music is a thing that definitely exists. Some poetry demands to be read aloud for its cadences and rhythms to be appreciated. And doesn't music, in song form at least, use language?

       This, I think, is the crucial point. Language is usually less important in music. If you listen to a song the lyrics can often be trite in the extreme, even when the song itself may be one you regard highly. Factors such as rhythm, melody and repetition are nearly always more vital in music. Songs obviously use language, but the aim is always to extract the maximum feeling from the words. It uses them in a very particular way, subordinating them to the sound.

       The overall sound of music is the important thing, whereas in poetry language and imagery matter more. At their best both touch directly upon, in their different ways, something deep within us. In fact, since we are not alone within the animal kingdom for having a primal response to music (think of the complex vocalisation of the blackbird and the song of the whale) there is a case for arguing that music is the more deep-rooted of the two.

       One thing that seems inarguable is that the relationship between poetry and music is close and complex. The sound of a poem, just as a song, can be important. The best example among poets must be Dylan Thomas. Legitimately, it may be said Thomas often used sound rather than the more usual syntax to link the images in his poetry. And, despite what I said earlier, we can all name songs - I am not thinking here of the commercial manufactures of the pop industry, but of talents that arise more spontaneously - where the use of language can only be described as poetic.

       Poetry and popular music can learn from each other, in exactly the way two close members of a family can. That doesn't mean they're the same thing, or that one is an inferior version of the other.


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