Sunday, August 12, 2007

Music and Poetry in English

If I ever get around to teaching English at secondary level, I will make sure that I exploit the analogies between music and literature. I think the analogy is quite illuminating, with regards to the distinction between “form” and “content” and the relationship between them. More importantly, it is likely to interest students more than a lesson that stuck solely to poetry or prose. Most school students have musical interests of some kind, and with a bit of prodding most should recognise that the appeal of a piece of music is bound up closely with the relationship between its form and its content.

In a song, of course, the relationship holds between the lyrical part of the work and the instrumental part. The distinction between form and content, when made out in this way, is easier to grasp than the same distinction as it is manifested in poetry. It is easy and natural to make a separation, even a physical separation, between the words and the music in a song; whereas it is not so easy to make the separation between the “message” of a poem and its “delivery” (Partly because a student needs to know about things like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metaphor etc., before they can give a full account of the distinction; and partly because the distinction is problematic in poetry anyway).

As well as this pedagogically convenient difference between music and poetry, there are pedagogically convenient similarities. Much of the “form” of a poem comes from its sonic effects. Also, at least one thinker (Walter Pater) has held that it is the mark of a good poem that it gets close to the condition of music; and some interesting poetry has been written on the basis of this idea (eg. Gertrude Stein).

Many of the ideas about the form-content distinction that one needs to learn in the poetry case, can be straightforwardly carried over to the music case. Here are some examples:

That a good piece of art should achieve a match between form and content; and also that there may be some exceptions to this rule.

That the same content, given a different form, can be given quite a different meaning.

That form and content can match up in different respects: they might match in their mood, their tone, their pace, their degree of order and regularity.
That the work can vary in these respects, and the artist take steps to ensure that form and content vary concurrently.

That some elements of form are (for various reasons) quite rigid and non-negotiable, while others are easier to manipulate.

That it is tempting to relax the more rigid elements to give the artist more “freedom of expression” (Radiohead, Walt Whitman); but that this relaxation can have its downfalls as well as its advantages.

One of the dangers of doing this sort of thing, apart from annoying the class next door, is that students might resent this intrusion of school life upon their music life. Putting Nirvana in a classroom might “take all the fun out of it.” But I should think it more likely that a student would welcome the opportunity to discuss and explore their out-of-school interests during class time. And the idea that excessive analysis can destroy an artwork, or at least fail to illuminate its appeal, is an idea worthy exploring; and another of the useful analogies between music and literature.


Andrea said...

The connection between music and literature is one I always find fascinating. I think that exploring the links between all the different art forms, whether visual art and literature, literature and music, or music and visual art, can bring up so many different ideas about each medium that you may not notice if you only consider them in isolation. As far as the music/poetry connection goes, as well as songs that have poetic lyrics (either in their imagery or interest in the way words sound and are arranged) and poems that take on the characteristics of music, another area that could be worth considering is more abstract music, where sounds themselves take on the characteristics of words. Perhaps abstract visual art would be a better thing to compare that to, though. And the question of analysis destroying a work of art? I don't agree with that. In some ways it can, but I always find I appreciate a work of art more if I know about its context. Anyway, to end this possibly too lengthy comment, I think interdisciplinary studies are the way to go!

Michael Bycroft said...

Hi there. Yes. I agree that looking at a group of things together helps to show what is distinctive about the group - in this case, what is distinctive about art. In saying that, I've a soft spot for people who keep different art forms apart in practice. It just seems more impressive to generate music and rhythm with words alone (for example) without needing a band to help you out.

I like your idea of extending the analogy to abstract art ie. art where the form and content get all mixed together, or when content (ie. the literal message) seems to disappear altogether. I'm thinking of people like Gertrude Stein here, but probably there are lot's of others who almost completely switch the role of language, from an instrument for meaning to one of sound and rhythm.

Anyway, thanks for the comment - the longer the better, I say.

Andrea said...

I'm not so familiar with Gertrude Stein's writing, I'll have to read some of it. A few of the other poets I had in mind who were interested in creating a kind of music with words are Edith Sitwell, Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine. Sitwell's 'Facade' was initially performed to music but is just as effective on the page. A more recent musical example is Joanna Newsom. With her songs the words alone have a similarly musical effect, yet the musical accompaniment is such an integral part of them that without it something would be missing. I agree that there is something quite special about words on their own, though. Nice to hear your thoughts on the subject, anyway. Best wishes for your journey and studies in Canada.