An Ear for Music by Kathryn Simmonds

Poetry springs from an oral tradition, it’s intended to be heard, and as children our first introduction to poems is through the music of nursery rhyme. Good poems should work not just on the heart or the mind, but on the ear. According to Ezra Pound, ‘poetry aspires to the quality of music.’

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These islands boast a rich history of song poems, from Blake’s Jerusalem to Benjamin Britten’s setting of Yeats and Auden, and the tradition continues. For his 2013 albumCyprus Well, the folk musicianJim Causley set a number of Charles Causley’s poems to music, recording them in Charles’s home on the poet’s very own piano. Jim says that while many of the poems didn’t lend themselves to be sung and were better left as poems others ‘…jumped out at me quite readily and the tunes flowed swiftly and with ease.’

Causley’s poems reflect his ear for music, they tell of his facility with rhyme, his innate feel for where to place a refrain line or a chiming effect. His ballads unfold effortlessly. Here’s a verse from ‘My Young Man’s a Cornishman’:

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His eye is bright as Dolcoath tin,
His body as china clay
His hair is dark as Werrington Wood
Upon St Thomas’s Day.

In his collection of essays On Poetry, the poet Glyn Maxwell says: ‘The other half of everything for the songwriters is music. For the poets it’s silence, the space, the whiteness…Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work.’ True enough. The poet has nowhere to go for music but the poem itself. And if a poet neglects the musical possibilities of the poem, the poem is dead on the page and dead on the ear.

Dolcoath tin. Werrington Wood. Charles Causley listened for intriguing names, for the textures of sound. These lines by Jen Hadfield are taken from the title poem of her 2008 collection Nigh-No-Place:

I will meet you at Pity Me Wood.
I will meet you at Up-To-No-Good.

I will meet you at Stank, Shank and Stye.
I will meet you at Blowfly.

I will meet you at Love Spying How.
I will meet you at Salt Pie.

Jen Hadfield by Kemima Kuhfeld

This list poem has an incantatory quality, playfully incorporating rhyme and music – Hadfield’s writing is alive to the ear because like Causley, she’s attentive to sound.

Both poems include (full) end rhyme to achieve their effects. End rhyme, that is rhyming the final word of the line – ‘His body as china clay/ Upon St. Thomas’s day’ – is the rhyme most commonly associated with poetry. Indeed, for some people this is what characterises a poem (‘If it doesn’t rhyme it’s not poetry’). But we’ve all read rhyming poems that plod predictably along the page without energy or pulse. What characterises poetry is rhythm, not rhyme. End rhyme is attractive and should be celebrated, but it needs particular care – a clumsy or obvious end rhyme easily kills a poem.

Unlike songwriters, who find end rhyme difficult to avoid, poets have so many ways to make their poems sing, and if they want to rhyme they have a variety of options – slant rhyme, internal rhyme, rich rhyme and identical rhyme to name only a few. (To read more about rhyme, click here)

TS ELiot by Lady Ottoline Morrell

As an example of what the best poets do with rhythm and rhyme, here’s an extract from T.S. Eliot’s long verse poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Fluid, strange and highly musical, this short extract mixes repetition, identical rhyme, full end rhyme and internal word music. It’s almost impossible to resist reading aloud:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stands in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.