Notation in music and in verse

Craig Wright
Prof. Craig Wright of Yale teaches a music appreciation course that is available free online.

Professor Craig Wright and Yale University offer a free online classical music appreciation course. In the 3rd lecture, Wright makes a simple but profound comparison between Western classical music and other music, say Eastern music and pop music in the West.

Our classical music is notated, he says. The focus is on the composer, who is the star. He’s like the architect, while the players are, say, carpenters or masons or window installers. When you go to hear pop music, on the other hand, whether rock or jazz, you will rarely see a music stand and printed music. You go to see the band or the ensemble, who are the stars. You talk and laugh and dance while the music plays.

Pop music, which must have come first in any culture or country, is heart and body, rhythm and dance. Classical music replaces heart and body with eye and mind, Wright says. It’s more analytical, rational, demanding of both player and listener. Which is why you need to know something technical about it in order to understand and appreciate.

In the same way, written poetry is a notated system. Most of us in the West may know poetry primarily through song, whether Bob Dylan’s or David Lee Roth’s. (Gods help us, but there is a difference.) And we don’t have to read music to get the rhythms of the song or the idea of the lyrics. Or course, we also know poetry, or did in my day, by reading and singings songs in our early education, whether these were patriotic hymns or folk music. And by memorizing poems, if that quaint idea is still around. (In Catholic high school, junior year, our Christian Brother English teacher had each of the boys in turn come to the front of the room and recite a poem we had memorized, whether Tennyson’s “Break, break, break, / On thy cold gray rocks, O Sea” or Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”: “Now when I was young and easy under the apple boughs.”

An awful lot of poetry currently being written shows no particular knowledge of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and the other formal niceties of traditional poetry. In itself that’s okay. Most of us don’t write formalist poetry anymore. But all of us who write should know something about those traditions, if only to skirt them successfully, to pay homage as necessary and move on. (Of course, even if we don’t use a formal rhyme scheme, we can use off rhymes or slant rhymes, internal rhymes rather than end-of-line rhymes; and there’s an awful lot of shaping of poetry, still, in tercets, quatrains, and other stanzaic groupings.)

This matter of form and formal notation in poetry comes down ultimately to the question: How can we write poetry unless we read it, poetry of the past and poetry of our time too? So that the poetry we write today becomes part of the great flow of poetry over time, not merely a private or solipsistic exercise? “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,” as Yeats asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

It’s difficult in a culture as oral as ours (as narcissistically addicted to sucking and suffering), as “postliterate” as ours (as the Trump reign has been called) to take the time and effort to read and think, gods know. To retire to a “fine and private place,” which is at the same time not (yet) the grave, and there, in the mind, to be content with what we can produce on our own and how we can locate it in the tradition.