What is Contrapuntal Poetry?
Contrapuntal poems are those that weave two poems together.
It’s difficult to know who invented the idea of contrapuntal poetry, though it is probable that it evolved from the musical idea of contrapuntality—weaving multiple, seemingly independent melodies together.
Examples can be found across the world, notably in China, where contrapuntal couplets are displayed as part of New Year’s celebrations. These are fascinating as they demonstrate the contextual nature of the Chinese language. A character may represent a word when used singularly, but can then transform into an entirely different word when paired with others.
In modern times, the contrapuntal poem has become more popular as a demonstration of a poet’s writing ability.
A contrapuntal poem is actually two separate but related poems that when read together change the understanding of the separate pieces.
This could be by adding context, such as one poem setting a tone that changes the reading of the other. (For example, a poem about gathering food could be changed by pairing it with another on exploitative business practices or starvation.) Alternatively, the poems could function as separate pieces but also as a unified piece.
Layout is very important to the form as it shows the distinction between the two poems. This could be by alternating the lines of the poems and aligning them to either side of the page or indenting one poem, or perhaps you may want to write the poems on the same line but separate them into two columns.
There are many reasons to use contrapuntality, as mentioned in the examples above. What is important is why you’ve chosen to use it. It’s not enough to put two poems together and hope that one informs the other.
Additionally, quite often the results of a contrapuntal poem are more interesting as an exercise than as a poem. Just because you have written a contrapuntal poem, doesn’t mean you have to share it. Ask yourself if the result is interesting because of the writing, or because of the mechanic underpinning it.
This is a very important rite of passage for poets approaching form for the first time. While form can sharpen the poem, the quality of the writing isn’t strictly bound to its adherence to the form.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.