Musicality in Poetry

The continuation of this essay is the next post, “Barbara Guest’s Musicalities.”

1. “Tin” or “to die for”?

        It’s easy to say that some poetry is musical, and when we come across such poetry, we may quietly nod inside as though its musicality were a self-evident characteristic that need be acknowledged only on a barely conscious level. We say that a particular poet has a tin ear, whereas another has an ear to die for. We know when poetry sounds clunky and we know when we feel we’re hearing a string quartet in words. What gives poetry (or any other text, for that matter) the quality of musicality?
        I suspect that what people mean most often is musicality on the close-range level of the poem: the timbre and rhythm. Timbre in music refers to the configuration of sound waves and overtone series that produces the difference between, say, a clarinet and a violin. One way to think of that trait in terms of poetry is on the microcosmic level of the phoneme: the particular combination of consonant and vowel sounds that create a range of sounds from the colourful to the monochromatic, or to stick with the musical model, from the richness of sounds in a Stravinsky orchestra to the relative sameness of, say, Philip Glass’s compositions for saxophone quartet. Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, whether obvious or subtle, can add richness to the sound and layers to the meaning of poetry. Kenneth Burke’s “On Musicality in Verse” offers a detailed analysis of this microcosmic manifestation of musicality in poetry.
        I think of metre or rhythm as occurring in the foreground of composition, like timbre and melody. It’s not only ritualistic or condensed poetic language that exhibits musical rhythm; ordinary conversation can be extraordinarily musical. For example, Frank O’Hara gives us the rhythm of drama, tempestuous or quiet, in his rants and chats.
        We also call some poetry “musical” in the sense of “painterly”—words used as colours and texture painted onto a canvas, arranged in such a way to give aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. Narrative, descriptive and representational coherence take a backseat to the play of forms: juxtapositions, repeated motifs, and layers of signification whose meaning derives from the relatively abstract play of images and sounds.
        Yet another sense of musicality is the one that we mean when we speak of James Joyce’s famous fugue in prose in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses. The voices of the fugue are translated into voices of characters, and the repetition of fugal melodies are represented by subject matter or rhetorical mode (description, for example). Similarly, once could make a case for the abrupt changes in perspective and style in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting corresponding with the abrupt rondo-like changes in some compositions by Janacek, who was the teacher of Kundera’s musicologist father. Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style might be considered as a theme and variations.
        Correspondences between the arts, of course, are not precise but suggestive. Polyphony, for example, can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by the characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Ulysses (Zimmerman 108-13).

2. Pater’s condition of (instrumental) music

        With all of these manifestations of musicality in poetry comes an emphasis on the material and materiality of language—its sounds, its formal play, and its patchwork play of motifs and connotations. This emphasis brings to mind Walter Pater’s statement almost fifty years earlier than the writing of Ulysses: “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Despite the absolutism of such a sweeping statement in its assertion of the aesthetic primacy of music and musicality as the ideal toward which all art aspires, it does suggest some possibilities for correspondences between music and literature in a way that moves away from mimetic concerns toward an appreciation for formal play. Patricia Herzog speculates that the ideal state of music that Pater champions as the Parnassus of the arts is not vocal music or a gesamtkunstwerk such as opera but rather instrumental or chamber music:

               Absolute music would be ideally suited to exemplify
               Pater’s thesis since it contains nothing extraneous to
               the medium of music itself, a medium consisting
               solely of tonally moving forms arranged melodically,
               harmonically and rhythmically. The form and the
               content of absolute music would thus appear to be
               identical. (Herzog 125)

        Herzog states that Pater’s musical ideas consisted of “”the obliteration of the distinction between matter and form” and the embracing of “imaginative reason” over the “senses and the intellect operat[ing] in isolation” (126). In other words, art’s goal is “pure perception,” and to achieve that ideal state, it must abdicate “its responsibilities to its subject or material” (127). For Pater, matter and form should be “so welded together” that the intellect is not the only faculty stimulated by the content, and the senses not the only faculties stimulated by the form. Instead, the blending of form and matter should “present one single effect to the ‘imaginative reason,’ that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol.”
        Herzog stresses that the experience of such musicality in art is more aesthetic than logical, since “music’s ideal content is perceived entirely and only through its own, tonally moving forms.” Whereas the literary and visual arts (of Pater’s time) are dependent upon mimetic representation, music’s meaning is revealed through “aesthetic self-sufficiency” (130).
        The distinction that Herzog makes between the aesthetic and the logical in musical content isn’t clear, since music’s “tonally moving forms” can possess their own kind of logical interplay. However, what I find most interesting about Herzog’s fleshing out of Pater’s aphoristic championing of music is the movement, in the concern with musicality in poetry, away from mimetic concerns to language’s drawing attention to itself as a medium: words as musical motifs or brushstrokes. The musical analogy, to my mind, offers more complex possibilities than painting (but this could be simply because music was my first discipline): just as a motif can be varied (inverted, embellished, rhythmically augmented, and so forth), so can a word be varied by context, connotations, and so forth.
        And one of the poets who, it seems to me, best exemplifies this kind of musicality is Barbara Guest. If I can get my act together to continue this thread, I’d like to take a close look at one of Guest’s poems as if it were a musical composition (despite the limitations inherent in that kind of analogy).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “On Musicality in Verse.” Poetry 57 (1940): 31-40.

Herzog, Patricia. “The Condition to Which All Art Aspires: Reflections on Pater on Music.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36.2 (1996): 122-134.

Zimmerman, Nadya. “Musical Form as Narrator: The Fugue of the Sirens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 26.1 (2002): 108-118.

Camille Martin


2 responses to “Musicality in Poetry

  1. Pingback: Barbara Guest’s Musicalities « Rogue Embryo

  2. Pingback: Poetic Polyphony in Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme « Rogue Embryo

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