Poetry and Song.



I don’t think that, prior to the wide use of the printing press, there was any distinction between poetry and song. It was only when a person could buy an edition of someone’s poems, and read them – not knowing at all how the writer had meant them to sound aloud – that a branch of poetry that consisted of interesting mind pictures could exist.

And that explains my preference over the poetry of Yeats to that of Eliot.  (I’m using old poets because it’s more likely people will understand my references.)  When Yeats went to excess, and he did frequently, he sounded, well, ridiculous.  Silly.  When Eliot went to excess, he became didactic.  Preachy.

I’ll take ridiculous over preachy ten times out of ten.

That may also explain the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, although I criticize neither.  Whitman was very out-going, and if his poetry was a barbaric yawp, at least it yawped in tune.  Dickenson had no one to sing for, as she lived in a strange solitude, so her poetry was the perfect succession of imagery, broken by lots of long dashes.

Now, of course, we have poetry which is not either song nor pictures.  It is conceptual, and goes on and on.  I guess I am showing a prejudice, here.  But as I’m not a critic by occupation, and in fact I avoid the role whenever I can, I can admit to my prejudices.  I like my poetry to sing.

I can’t dance with elegance, but in my head I do. And I like to have words to dance to.

5 thoughts on “Poetry and Song.”

  1. Not to be too pedantic, but neither the Canterbury Tales nor the Divine Comedy would be confused with song, as much as the verse sings–and the latter (like early-Renaissance sonnets) circulated in manuscript before eventually appearing in print. I share your preference for poetry that sings–see Ezra Pound’s comments about dance, music, and poetry–and I have never found “prose poem” a useful category. (So what do we do with “poetic” prose? And what the hell was Joyce doing in the opening of Finnegans Wake?)

    1. Russell, I’m just saying what I like. And not talking about poetic prose. That’s a whole different subject for me.

      1. In fact, Russell, I meant this to be a forum, and I’m sorry it isn’t a more convenient forum. But what I can do, if you want to write a more extensive comment about prose-poems, I will copy and paste it into a new posting and call it a ‘Guest Post’ by Russell Letson. I wish it were more convenient for you, but this format was all I could afford and all I have time to manage at the present. But I’d be happy to put your point of view in to a guest post, if that works, technically.

        1. I dropped by because the post got a mention at File 770 and found that the first couple sentences pushed an old button (out of service for thirty years), and I gave in to the urge to comment (pedantically, despite the disclaimer) on a literary-historical matter. I understand the distinction you’re making, and if I were still teaching I would almost certainly make much of the musicality of poetry and try to unpick exactly how it’s done and how it can be distinguished from musical prose. (Which maybe it can’t, at least without exiling the likes of Whitman and Russell Edson.) You can take the codger out of the classroom, but sometimes the classroom refuses to be extracted from the codger. (And in any case, this isn’t a classroom–a more apt metaphor would be your front porch, and I just wandered by with my fistful of tracts and stuck one in your mailbox.)

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