I was on a panel held at FireFusion Studio that discussed the intersection between music and poetry. The panel, Sound & Vision: Poets & Musicians on the Art of the Lyric, was hosted by poet Adam O. Davis. The other panelists were poets Tessy Ward and Aaron LoPatin.
Part One: Musical Rests and Pauses in the Poetry of Cathy Park Hong and De Leon Harrison
One idea I focused on was tonal “clouds” and the use of in-line pauses in the musical performance texts of Cathy Park Hong, De Leon Harrison, and others.
While poems usually use line breaks at the end of each line (end-line pauses), many innovative writer use in-line or inter-line pauses within the poetic line as well. This creates a system of pauses not unlike the rests in a musical phrase. In essence, those writers are “scoring” their poem not unlike a piece of music.
If you look at a musical phrase, you’ll notice different types of rests within that phrase. This example from Maple Leaf Rag has two types of rests (eighth & sixteenth).
If you are scoring a poem the way your score music, you also include different lengths of rests or pauses (white space) within the poetic line. An example of this is Cathy Park Hong’s “The Hula Hooper’s Taunt.”
The text uses different lengths of in-line rests (white space) just like the pauses or rests in music. This can especially be seen if we highlight the different in-line rests or points of white space within the poetic line.
Another example of this phenomenon is “Form I” from “A Collage for Richard Davis–Two Short Forms” by innovative writer De Leon Harrison.
This poem uses the white space or in-line and end-line rests to mimic the improvisational jazz music of Richard Davis, a well-known jazz bassist.
The third example of this phenomenon is a poem of my own, titled “Elegy for Ectopistes Migratorius.”
The different lengths of in-line and end-line rests mimic the wandering of the passenger pigeon, an extinct species of bird that never found its way back home.
These texts remind me, at least visually, of the tonal “clouds” (micro-polyphony) of the orchestral music of 20th century composer György Ligeti.
Above: examples from the score of György Ligeti’s Atmospheres.
Atmospheres is an innovative orchestral piece by Ligeti that uses tonal clouds or micro-polyphony. The amorphous masses on the score seem to almost mimic the broken-up line clusters that sometimes result from scoring a poem using in-line and end-line rests.
If you’re curious about what Atmospheres (and tonal clouds) sound like, check out the video below, which includes additional images of the score.
Part Two: The “Playable” Alliteration of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”
Another idea I discussed was how the alliteration of a poem can function as a built-in form of musical accompaniment.
Most importantly, this built-in form of alliteration (micro-rhyming) can be dense enough to be “playable” as a piece of music.
As an experiment, I isolated two passages from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” and charted the alliteration.
Then, I assigned each alliterative sound a note on the piano and “played” the alliteration as a piece of music.
I chose a Hopkins poem because Hopkins was an amateur musician who tried to incorporate musical elements in his work.
First, I isolated two passages for the experiment. Both passages had consistent alliteration throughout.
Then, I charted the alliteration for each passage. Below is a color-coded chart for the first line of the passage on the right. It includes commonly-used primary sounds (melody) and secondary sounds (harmony) that were the best examples of consonance, assonance, and sibilance.
Once I charted the alliteration, I turned the passages into a form of alliterative shorthand that included all primary and secondary sounds.
I assigned each sound a note on the piano using the key of C Major. The piano chart on the left was used for the second passage as it had two different phonetic E sounds I wanted to include.
I played the letters on the piano in the order they came up in the passage. The notes for syllables with multiple letters were played together like chords. I tried to keep the rhythm and tempo one might use when reading the passage aloud.
Below are recordings of the alliteration in both passages. If you listen, you can definitely “hear” the alliteration in both passages of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s wonderful poem!