Music and poetry go way back. We’re talking as far back as the 7th century.
When Greek poets such as Pindar and Sappho would recite their lyric poems to the accompaniment of a lyre. At this time, lyric poetry was a novel, exciting development in Grecian poetics. It focused the eye and ear inward, utilizing music to heighten the emotion of a poem.
For as long as there’s been oral storytelling, music and poetry have been woven delicately together.
This history of one influencing the other can be found across time spans and cultures. We hear them in the alliterative folktales shared by women in Somali villages, in the performative Urdu poetry of South Asia, in the Northern bards of Ireland, and in Latin American corridos.
For contemporary examples of the interrelationality between music and poetry, look no further than rap, an acronym for rhythm and poetry. This musical genre originated in the streets of 1970s Bronx, influenced by West African griots. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to listen to the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar, and Lauryn Hill and think it isn’t what it is: poetry, plain and simple. For a deep dive into the history of hip hop and poetry, check out this article by Thea Voutiritsas.
Composer John Cage once said all art forms aspire to the condition of music and, within that, the musicality of language. Both can be used to create, manipulate, and/or heighten emotion. Music is one of the few forms of art we respond to physiologically.
On a biochemical level music produces certain effects, conscious and not, within ourselves.
Think of how cathartic it feels to listen to sad songs (Elliot Smith’s discography, anyone?) when you’re going through a breakup or having a hell of a day.
If you are going through a breakup and want to test this, read “In A U-Haul North of Damascus” by David Bottoms. This poem with its subtle, irregular end rhymes reads like a hymn. Try not to cry (or is that just me?). Alternatively, think of the joy produced when the rhythm of a work is felt. The work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil – all joy – and Jamila Woods – all vulnerability – come to mind.
If you are looking to create a mood or read old poems in a new way, here are some – not all – devices you can use to discover poetry’s music.
Meter refers to the type and number of feet in a line of poetry. A foot is a unit of stressed and unstressed syllables grouped together to create the rhythm of a line. Each line contributes to the emotion of a poem.
The most well-known example of poetic meter is iambic pentameter, made famous through the sonnet.
In iambic pentameter, a foot consists of an iamb, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (dun DUN), that is repeated five times (penta) in a line.
Other common types of feet are trochee (DUN dun), spondee (DUN DUN), dactyl (DUN dun dun), and anapest (dun dun DUN).
The number of feet in a line is described with Greek prefixes: mono- for one, di- for two, tri- for three, etc. A line written in trochaic dimeter, for example, has the following rhythm: DUN dun DUN dun.
Meter can heighten the emotion of a poem’s content. Iambic pentameter, for example, isn’t used just because of Shakespeare – it’s the poetic meter that not only comes closest to the natural rhythm of English but mimics the sound of our heartbeat.