Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, February 15, 2004

POETRY AND SONG, POETRY AND PROSE AND SPEECH AND UM AND OM (Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends, Part 4)

The distinction between poetry and song was not always as clear-cut as it seems to be now. Verses that a poet-playwright like Shakespeare wrote to be sung in his plays now come down to us as “poems.” They were song lyrics. Ben Jonson’s song lyrics are now poems; scholarly consensus believes Sappho’s poems originally to have been sung. The word “lyric” comes from “lyre,” meaning, a poem or verses intended to be accompanied by a lyre, namely, a song.

Robert Herrick’s 17th century poems read like song lyrics, and composers into the early 20th century set contemporary poems to music and made them popular songs. Lyricists such as W.S. Gilbert (of “And Sullivan”) and Ira Gershwin and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz” and many other classic numbers) started out as writers of “light verse” who published their stuff in newspapers and magazines. In today’s era, Leonard Cohen published books of poetry before he revealed himself to be a songwriter.

The distinction is arbitrary. When Ezra Pound in the 1920s wanted to revive the spirit of 15th and 16th century English verse, he needed only to check out the songs of the era. Yip Harburg in particular sometimes strikes paradoxes worthy of John Donne, in such songs as “Last Night When We Were Young” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Formally, the Tin Pan Alley guys resemble the 15th and 16th century lyric poets too. The verses often have unique, unorthodox line lengths and patterns -- they’re not boxy iambic pentameter, they’re unpredictable.

So when Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher stole a line whole hog from a Longfellow poem for the title of their song “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” which Ella and the Ink Spots sing so beautifully on “Ella and Friends,” they were in the tradition. The tradition has continued into our time, as Bob Dylan cribbed the central line and fair amount of the imagery of Robert Burns’s poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands” for his 1997 song “Highlands.”

The distinction between poetry and prose is equally arbitrary. A character in a Moliere play (I don’t remember the play) expresses shock at realizing that he has been speaking prose his whole life. Close listening to the way people talk will reveal that almost nobody speaks in grammatically “standard” prose. The poet, translator, essayist, and linguist David Antin has pointed out that people speak with herky-jerky starts and stops driven by rhythm and association, and that these characteristics make speech closer to poetry than prose. Antin calls prose “concrete poetry with justified margins.” Psychoanalysts and English teachers have also pointed out that almost nobody speaks in what we call prose.

It’s actually very beautiful to listen to the pauses and the false starts in people’s speech. We’re quirky critters. Whenever anyone says “um,” I like to imagine them touching base with the Hindu cosmic seed-syllable “OM.”

Country roads, take me OM.

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