Music of the Spheres: Why Poetry Requires Music

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Imagine a piece of fiction that you love. That piece of fiction has certain qualities that make it your favorite. Perhaps it is plot, setting, the characters, the dialogue, or maybe even the elements of the story telling (such as genre). Now, think of your favorite poem (should you have one). What makes it your favorite. Now the more important question: what makes it different than fiction?

In my opinion, poetry is different than fiction in that there is music, metrics, and the metaphors are inserted to give multiple meanings and add contrast to the sound of the poem. Novels tell stories (and so do most literal poems), but poems are a dancing language. It is like the theory of the harmony of spheres: that there is some sort of balanced act between all the planetary objects around a solar system. Well, suppose the literal object of a planet is the literal story (novel and/or poem), but that harmony is the rhythm of that dancing language. The music of poetry is what distinguishes it from many other literary forms.

Take poems such as William Blake’s “The Tiger”. Take the first stanza:

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This famous example of a trochaic meter is clearly a waltz in a way. Step, slide, step, slide, step, slide, step. Ti-ger, ti-ger, burn-ing, bright. The music is underlying the poem, and is clearly audible. The rhymes are also there, however perfect or slant they may be.

Now, take another poem this time by a more contemporary artist, Phillip Levine. This excerpt is the final five lines from his poem ” Bitterness”:

sweating in the free air, spading
the difficult clay for the bare
roots of a pear or apple that
will give flower and fruit longer
than I care to think about.

Though there is not a visible meter, I assure you that Phillip Levine is strict in his sounds. All but the last line are in syllabic meter, with eight and then the final line short one syllable. The repetition of the short vowel sound of the a is heard echoed in the words air, bare, pear, and care. There are many two syllable words that echo a short e sound. Regardless of whether you write free verse, or write metrical poems, there is a structure in the language that you etch into the paper. I, personally, don’t believe in free verse. That we can leave to be called prose.

The point I am trying to make here, is that poetry differs from fiction and prose in that there is more substantial sounds, rhythm, rhyme, and symmetry. Poetry is not necessarily better than fiction: I am far from implying that. It takes a great poet to write great fiction, and a great musician can form lyrics and poems. If you want your poetry to be regarded with taste and as differing from prose, these are some of the techniques you may utilize.

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