Dispatches | February 25, 2011

What do Donovan, narcotics, love songs, and The Missouri Review’s Audio Competition have in common? I’ve actually been wondering this quite a bit over the past week. My academic reading has been leading me to Victorian and Modern song poems and to poetic theory about the genre “song.” And I’ve also been doing way too much thinking about TMR’s Audio Competition (whose deadline is fast approaching!). The more all of these preoccupations have been colliding in my brain, the more I’ve started to see connections.

For one thing, the “Voice-Only” category we’ve devised for the contest is somewhat misleading. Under our guidelines we state that the readings “may be solely author-read or contain other voices, tracks of sound, or music.” Music! These days, how often do we think about music as a complement to literature, or vice versa? For the Victorians, on the other hand, “Song” poems were a popular genre—not poems that were meant to be sung per se, but poems that titled themselves song in order to acknowledge that they were in some way meant to take on the functions or qualities of music. Of course all lyric poetry does this to some extent: rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, and all those other poetic sound devices that move us on a primal level allow us to feel a meaning before we apprehend it consciously. And this is similar to the effect of music; it reaches us on a level that goes beyond the power of words or conscious understanding.

If these qualities are common to lyric poetry, what makes a song poem different than a regular lyric? It seems like a lot of traditional song poems take these musical qualities and amp them up. Tennyson’s “Choric Song” in “The Lotus Eaters,” for instance, is so melodious, so soft and sweetly lulling that the sounds have an almost narcotic effect, similar to the experience of the poem’s collective speakers: “on beds of amaranth and moly,/ How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)/ With half-dropt eyelid still,/ Beneath a heaven dark and holy…” And poems like Rosetti’s “Love-Lily” make such use of repetition (“Between the hands, between the brows,/ Between the lips…”) that the meaning of the repeated words gets lost to the rhythmic force of their sound. There is something delightful to this excess. One feature of song poetry must surely be delight.

So why is it that today the song poem is more or less an outmoded genre? This is something I’ve been wondering lately as I’ve thought about the Audio Competition. Though I said before that song poems weren’t generally written to be sung, Yeats (who may be best known for his “Song of Wandering Aengus”) was a special case. He wanted his poems to be sung in the streets—and in the case of “Song of Wandering Aengus,” the poem actually was set to music by the British folk singer Donovan.

How does setting a poem to music change the poem? If poems create their own music through the rhythmic structures and textures of the language, does actual music add one layer too many? Does it become a distraction, diffusing the impact of the language? Does it create too fixed a reading by its interpretation in the hands of the musician? Or can music enhance a poem? Can it work like a poem’s meter, providing a structure for the meaning to work in and against in interesting ways? And—I’ve hardly even given this thought—how does this work in the case of prose, which is generally less musical to begin with?

These are all questions I will leave up to the entrants in our Audio Competition. I don’t have an answer myself. But the questions interest me—and, music or no music, I’m expecting to be surprised and delighted.

Claire McQuerry is the contest editor for The Missouri Review.