SOUNDS OF POETRY
Words, particularly in their spoken form, become increasingly fascinating to me. I’m aware, as I travel around the country teaching, and listen to students at home, that elocution isn’t taught in our schools today, nor is the memorization and recitation of poetry. We’re taught to read ‘fast’, to ‘skim’, to ‘get the facts’. The shape of the phrase, the emotional freight of the passage, the loving delineation of sound in the voice, seem to be forgotten. Yet how can we sing if we don’t appreciate the foundation that a beautifully spoken text gives to the music? “The way we say the words is the way we sing the phrase”. . . This has been a mantra for my arranging students, and it’s ever more necessary.
As a composer setting a poem of, say, Emily Dickinson, my first responsibility is to work my way into the poem by reading it aloud, memorizing it, finding the tone of voice, the tempo and the rhythm of the words. I try to imagine myself into her attitude as she was writing the words. What is the emotional background – contemplative, rueful, wondering,joyous, deep gloom? I can never be sure – but the absence of such a frame means that the reading is dull: Just the facts.” I can never be certain that my approach was hers, and thankfully I can change my approach every time I read the poem. When, one day, I read it in a way that sounds new-minted, completely fresh, I can begin to hear the music in the words. Meanwhile I’ve explored many levels of ‘meaning’, meaning is just as elusive as mood: witness the continual flood of scholarly writings on her work. What is concrete for me is the sound of the syllables in my mouth: the beginning of the singing.
Take a short example – one of my favorites that begins:
- Beauty crowds me till I die*
Beauty mercy have on me . . .
A bald paraphrase might read “I’m surrounded by beauty on every side. Have mercy – it’s almost too much. But when I die – be there.” But I can’t set the meaning – I can only set the sounds that the words conjure forth.
Beauty: explosive ‘B’, diphthong ‘ee-oo’, ‘t’return to “ee” but this time closer to ‘ih’; accent on first syllable, lift on second. Crowds: explosive ‘k’, difficult ‘r’ (British?), wide open ‘ow’, pitched ‘d’, sibilant ‘s’; the whole needs space -- it can’t be crowded. Me: hummed ‘m’, return to ‘ee’; personal, inward rather than outward. Till: return to ‘t’ gentle ‘ih’, liquid pitched ‘ll’; small (opposite of ‘crowd’). I: 'diphthong ah-ee; personal again. Die: return to ‘d’, return to ‘ah-ee’; needs space.
The line is framed by huge words: Beauty . . . die; all but the first are of one syllable.
And that’s just the beginning. How much accent do I put on each syllable? What’s the relative weight of the syllables; or, what’s the dominant stress? (The meaning changes with each shift.) Other questions: Can I make the word sound like what it means? Can I find a tempo and ‘tone’ for the reading fast or slow, measured or free, high or low; sad or happy, inward or outward)?
Think melody: which syllables go up in pitch? where is the high point of the whole? does this phrase go up or down? What is the curve of the whole? How does it end? Only when the same melody recurs each time I come to the poem do I begin to write it down, and to hear the surrounding voices.
That’s a brief overview of the way I work ‘into’ the poem. The point I wish to emphasize here is that the poem must live in my mouth, must exist in sound vibrations, in the parallel worlds of musical space and time, before it can be notated. The writing-down is not the end of the process: that comes when the sounds are again brought to life. In a way, the writing-down is a detour: the idea into soundless black and white on a flat page. It compresses the song almost to death. The music and the poem live when they make the air and the heart vibrate.
*Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1960, Little Brown and Company,(1654)