Music and Poetry, a Timeless Relationship

A closer look at the connection of music and poetry through the years and how this relationship has remained strong while evolving.

Music and Poetry, a Timeless Relationship

The relationship between music and poetry is so strong that has survived the ages. It has been challenged, questioned, scrutinized but is still alive today to prove that some bonds are hard to break.
While each is an autonomous form of art, music, and poetry work well together. Yes, there’s a close connection between many forms of art – dancing, painting, performing, architecture, sculpture. They are all forms of expression. But there’s something unique that connects poetry and music, and the interesting part is that it does so for centuries.

When music and poetry first met

Music has been part of all societies around the globe to what it seems to be the beginning of time. It is believed that music was originated in Africa by tribes that used various materials to create what we know today as instruments to produce sounds. It became an essential part of every culture and influenced by it and all aspects of life – religion, climate, economic and social factors, customs.
Poetry, as a form of rhythmic language that intends to evoke meaning, was known before written texts and was used to remember laws, family history, events. To remember and not forget, some phrases were repeated. The tone of voice was rhythmic. It is, perhaps, then when poetry and music met. The Greek rhapsodies, the Japanese tanka, the Chinese Shijing are all typical examples of sung poems. Eventually, the forms and genres of poetry broadened and while used for different purposes and were of various lengths, they all included some rhythm – epics, hymns, psalms, elegies, hadiths, suras.

Lyric poetry, an excellent example of poetry & music combined

The repeated phrases of verbal poets resemble the refrain of the lyrics in a song. Besides, the goal is the same – to remember the song, the lyrics. Now, the word ‘lyrics’ and its derivatives (lyricism, lyric, lyre) play a vital role in the relationship between music and poetry.
Lyrical is one of the three categories of poetry (epic and dramatic, being the other two) as seen by Aristotle. Lyre is a harp-like musical instrument, dominant in ancient Greece. Lyricism is expressing beautiful feelings in the form of music or writing. See how it all connects? Ultimately, a lyric poem is that which expresses emotion.
Of course, the difference here is that lyric poems were meant to be sung – at least, most of the time and we’ve seen them in the form of sonnets, odes, elegies, ballads. Both the 19th and the 20th centuries were swamped by lyrical poets – Keats, Byron, Shelley, Yeats, Plath. Going back in time, we meet Schiller, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Petrarch.

The connection of music and poetry

The strong bond between poetry and music is clearer when the two forms of art are seen independently. Each of them can stand alone but also get inspired by the other. It is obvious that there are many forms of music as there are many forms of poetry. And they cannot always co-exist. Take “The Cubist Break-up” by E.E. Cummings, for example. Could it ever have a melody attached to it? Not all poems can blend with music.
Then again, we must make a distinction here. The lyrics of a song can be beautiful enough and structured in such a way as to be considered a poem. But not all lyrics are poems. And so, our main concern is to see how a poem, which was not meant to be sung, blended with music so nicely as to become popular.
That’s a very crucial point to the history of the relationship between poetry and music. Poems, which would have gone unnoticed, have been loved by people when they became songs. In Greece, the poem “Arnisi” written by Nobel laureate and one of the biggest Greek poets, Giorgos Seferis, became extremely popular when it was composed by Mikis Theodorakis. It is said that T.S. Eliot wrote “The Wasteland” inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. And that Claude Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stephane Mallarme’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” And that Maurice Ravel composed the Trois Poemes de Mallarme, based on the poems by Mallarme.
Clearly, poets are inspired by composers and composers are inspired by poets. This fact alone underlines how powerful these forms of art are to inspire others to create masterpieces. It also implies that they have some common roots. Diction, for example. That’s the choice and arrangement of words to form a poem. But doesn’t music follow similar rules?

Music embraces poetry & poetry embraces music

It is often believed that the written form of poetry created a distance from music. The tune of the verbal poetry was missing. But one could argue that this connected the two forms of art even more by giving rhythm to the written words – hence, the birth of ballads, for example. In Iran, the verb Khandan is used to describe reading poetry and singing. Mallarme sought to create the effect of music through poetry by emphasizing how a poem sounds, instead of what the deeper meanings of the words are.
Most people do not love poetry simply because they don’t understand it. But they do when they sing the words of a poem. Surely, not all poems are easy to read and some are reserved only for the scholars, while everybody can feel the music. In this context, poetry sounds like the bad guy when the truth is that all forms of art follow some rules and techniques.
Poetry read out loud gives a wavy tone to the sound, so alike to musical notes. One word connects both, cadence – the rise and fall of sound, whether by an instrument or human voice.
Cadence is also what connects Shakespeare and Eliot to the contemporary rapper & poet Kendrick Lamar. The words that comprise a poem have a rhyme and get a rhythm while whispered or spoken, leaving a ringing to the listener. Even when the rhyme is absent, like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, the sound of words becomes more powerful. This is fully associated with the selection of words and the way they are connected to bring out emotions and set the tone. In other words, it has to do with the poet’s skill. At this point, the poem’s connection to the music is displayed by the sound of the words, the way the poem is read – and that’s where its lyrical expression is revealed.

What enabled the timeless relationship of music & poetry?

Poetry is about rhythm, flow, expression, feelings, deeper meanings. Instrumental music shows as much expression, while it certainly flows and emits emotions with the main difference being the absence of words. There’s a mode of repetition, whether in the form of words or musical notes, to create a pattern, to act as a reminder, to make it unforgettable, to draw emphasis. The repeated phrases are noticed in Homer and the religious texts of ancient India, Vedas, and are present today in most poems and musical compositions. Repetition creates flow and that’s what connects the two arts.
How did poetry & music manage to have a successful marriage for centuries? The poems, which would have otherwise been lost under stacks of paper, were sung by people. Music takes a whole lot of new meaning as it approaches the human soul with words, which express personal emotion. And let’s not forget that the artists of both forms are affected by their surroundings, the current socioeconomic environment, the dominant beliefs and customs, their personal experiences, their interaction with other poets and musicians.
Interestingly enough, while many things change along the way, some don’t. The method of alliteration used by Dickinson is used by many rappers today. The iambic pentameter is still dominant today because it is the closest it can get to the way people talk in their everyday life. It’s hardly surprising why music and poetry make such a nice couple for centuries and will likely do so for eternity.

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