The Relationship Between Music and Poetry

A consideration of the historical relationship between music and poetry.

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Poetry is surely the most musical of all literary forms. It depends upon sounds, rhythms, silences, and form beyond content to create its effect. Historically, bards were always accompanied by musicians when they performed, whether at court, theatres, pubs, temperance meetings, or working men’s clubs—a crucial component of an oral tradition stretching over centuries. Poetry and music have never really been separate entities; no matter how many poetry books sell, nor A-level literature papers demand poems be considered silently, it remains foolish and artificial to try.

In the early 1950s the Beat poets began toying with African American jazz rhythms in their poetry, attracted to its spontaneity and authenticity. The sociological elements of the jazz scene were as attractive to the Beats as were the rhythms and fluidity of expression. Meanwhile, the UK saw the Liverpool scene develop, influenced by the Beats, with Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, and others seeking to make poetry entertaining—part of the pop movement—thus broadening its appeal, even to those who wouldn’t generally consider poetry to be for them.

More commonly, however, poets of social protest tend to use music alongside their work. The use of music tends to achieve bigger audiences and ensure their message is heard. This was certainly the ambition of Gil Scott Heron, whose passionate poetry and angry political commentary was made instantly more accessible and catchy when layered over jazz and soul. In Jamaica, Count Machuki popularised the tradition of talking over tunes or ‘toasting’ in the late 1950s, having been infuriated to hear American DJs do precisely that. He wondered if perhaps he could improve chants and rhythms with the written word, and added storytelling, comedy, and poetry over existing tunes in live performances, with words often tailored to the event.

In the early 1970s, John Betjeman recorded four albums of his poetry set to music. Banana Blush sold extraordinarily well and has been cited by voices as prestigious and divergent as Morrissey, Nick Cave, and Jarvis Cocker as influences on their own work. As an audio artist, Betjeman has endured, even to the extent of achieving a certain cult status.

To read a poem silently to oneself is to lose huge swathes of its meaning and verve. It has to be read aloud, and who better to assume that role than the poet? From their voice, expression, pauses, lilt, you can often uncover as much meaning as from the words themselves. Increasingly at readings I see poets choose to accompany their words with music, generally of their own composition. In addition to this, many of those same soulful beauties are choosing to record their work to a soundtrack and release it in audio form, in addition to seeking to see their words published. It’s a joy to be able to hear poetry at your leisure, at the creator’s preferred speed and delivery. And what a treat for the poet, too, to use his own work as a resource for further creative endeavour.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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