Sing to It: The Aural Qualities of Poetry

There is a deep connection between literary writing and music which we often miss. By that I mean literary writing is an aural phenomenon, albeit one that appears on the page. Indeed, literature originated in the oral tradition, in what was spoken. Hence, literature that avoids the sonic register does so at its peril and prose or poems that never live in the writer’s mouth, or ear will never be beautiful. This is why many writers play music, apart from the fact that music delights the spirit. Playing music or listening to it encourages one to listen attentively to the musical elements of one’s prose, besides making you a more interesting person. A writer who is attuned to music when writing is not simply engaged with how a page looks or how a plot advances; instead he or she is concerned with how a line or paragraph sounds, about what music echoes from the page.

To demonstrate that good literature is musical, I showcase two examples from poetry. The first poem, “Hope is the Thing” is a famous poem by the doyen of American 19th century poets, Emily Dickinson. The second piece comes from Sara Teasdale, who is sometimes referred to Dickinson’s successor. Her piece is titled, “What do I Care?”. After reading this blog, if you are a lover of poetry, you may want to seek out other poems that speak to you because it’s music resonates with you.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1866)

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard; 
And sore must be the storm 
That could abash the little bird 
That kept so many warm. 

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land, 
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity, 
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1866) is one of the world’s best loved poets. Along with Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, the trio are widely regarded to be founders of a uniquely American voice.

What Do I Care?  Sara Teasdale (1883 – 1933)

What do I care, in the dreams and the languor of spring,
That my songs do not show me at all?
For they are a fragrance, and I am a flint and a fire,
I am an answer, they are only a call.

But what do I care, for love will be over so soon,
Let my heart have its say and my mind stand idly by,
For my mind is proud and strong enough to be silent,
It is my heart that makes my songs, not I.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1894, Sara Teasdale wrote mainly romantic poetry. Her works employ classical forms and are known for their simplicity and clarity. Her volume of poems includes Love Songs (1917), Flame and Shadow (1920), Dark of the Moon (1926), and Stars To-night (1930). In 1918, she was awarded the Columbia University Poetry Society Prize (which became the Pulitzer Prize for poetry) and the Poetry Society of America Prize for Love Songs.

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