Sondheim on Reading Poetry

In a spirited essay on the art of writing lyrics, Stephen Sondheim – one of America’s most celebrated lyricist and composer – gives his take on how poetry should be read.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs poems at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone. The tempo is dictated less by what the pace the poet intends than by the reader’s comprehension. All of us, as we read poetry (prose, too), slow down, speed up, even stop to reread when overwhelmed by the extravagance of the images or confused by the grammatical eccentricities. The poet may guide us with punctuation and layout and seduce us with the subtle abutment of words and sounds, but it is we who supply the musical treatment.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, Virgin Books, New York, 2010.

Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist known his contributions to musical theater for more than half a century. He is the recipient of many awards, including an Academy Award, 8 Tony Awards (including one for lifetime achievement in theatre), 8 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Finishing the Hat is a collection of all his lyrics from 1954 to 1981 including West Side Story. The book also provides a rare glimpse into Sondheim’s extraordinary musical shows and life.

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