I am, at this moment, preparing visual slides for a choir anthem, "He Leadeth Me", a nice setting of the 23rd Psalm. I had stopped to show my wife a typo (rare, for a Lorenz edition), but when I returned, I began thinking about the poetry I was copying. I began to be possessed with an Analytical Spirit (that's a little devil with a slide rule), noting passages like "Forever I'll sing of His praise" (you can sing praise, but how do you sing "of" praise?) -- the "of" was added to make the eighth notes work right. Everywhere I spotted trite rhymes and hackneyed usage. I note that "...before mine enemies" has been reduced to "I cannot fail / He will prevail".
Yet I LOVE this song! It has a beautiful melody and is set with a compelling arrangement that pulls me through the story. When I sing, I don't notice the phraseology at all -- rather, through the power of music to link understanding and emotion, I experience Psalm 23 in depth, and emerge with the song coursing through my mind, as I have periodically during the week.
Songs often compress a great deal of thought into a liiiiiitle tiny living space. Some toss huge theological concepts around like styrofoam boulders on a movie set. Yet they are effective. They work, somehow.
What are your thoughts on what a melody can do to the poetry of a song?
I've tried to compose a response to this, erased all and restarted several times. After a few words, my previous attempts have sounded academic and lecture-like. When I sing the hymns of Isaac Watts, for example, I do not consciously consider the effect melody and accent have on my understanding of the words and phrases. But there was Intent, there, wasn't there? Watts' hymns didn't just randomly flow across clever tunes. Key words in the phrases are on the beat. The rise and fall of the melody and the length and strength of the beat reinforces the flow of the ideas. The first phrase establishing the rhyme ends with an uptick in the melody with the completion of the phrase resolving both semantically and musically. No random phrases which sound good but mean little here - everything focuses on the flow of the phrase from its premise to its conclusion:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the king of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
I can't explain why it all works, but there seem to be some profound musical "memes" about the relationship of poetry to rhythm and melody. I'm at a loss for expressing these ideas with proper terms. Is there study of hymnody based on people like Watts in the way there is a study of music theory from Bach's choral works? I know there are writers who aren't very good at this, so I hesitate to say that it's instinctively understood, but when wielded by a craftsman the concepts are so subtle and effective that they seem almost inherent in the flow of language.
Also, when I hear certain pieces of classical music, I "see" scenes and colors. The Chaconne from Bach's Partita II for violin, particularly my favorite recording of it, transcribed for guitar and played by Segovia, contains the Easter story from the garden to the tomb. The questioning in the garden, the march to the city, the scourging, the stumbling with the cross with Simon continuing the march to the hill carrying it for Him, the hammer and nails, the darkening of the sun, the tearing of the curtain, the stone dropping into place on the last note, it's all there. The Loure from Partita III is my internal soundtrack for Mary Magdalene making her way to the tomb in the early morning twilight. Music and poetry aren't just a forced fit.
Your description threw me back to an unforgettable time in Basic Training with the Air Force, going on a five-mile march with a thunderstorm in the distance. To keep myself occupied, I played the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem in my head ("Deee-THUD-es Eeee-THUD-RAY! THUD), stepping on the afterbeats. The images of Sistine-Chapel-style figures swirling around the upper atmosphere, mixed in with the actual lightning bolts and thunder... sheer wonder!
My original post was about music making bad poetry better; but yes! it makes good poetry (like Watts') better, too. That would be a good study -- to examine how poetry may be constructed to harbor musical ideas effectively (the "metres" you learn in school - Iambic, Trochaic, Spondaic, etc., are for that purpose, but most of has became resistant to that strain of teaching very quickly, like maybe the first day of poetry class).
I'm glad the process is a little mysterious. If it were too obvious, then the Senior Snootheads of Education would make lots of Rules for us to compose music and poetry by, and ruin all of our fun. Can you imagine how bad it would be if high school proficiency exams included music? They almost managed to do that in the state of Washington. It would be the final shackles and chains on music teaching.
Everything focuses on the flow of the phrase from its premise to its conclusion.
That is as true of a melody as it is of a poetic phrase. To create a melody that has purpose and a sense of inevitability (that there is no other way this melody could, seemingly, have been written) is a good deal of the art, and a reason why there are very, very few great songs (in proportion to the number of attempts, or the number of songs written). To strike a strong melody and poem at the same time is a thing of genius -- "Row, Row, Row your boat", or "Somewhere over the Rainbow", or "Shenandoah" or "Jesus Loves Me." They cannot be churned out or franchised; their writers did not expect to make such rare tunes when they were composed. They just are.
Music can almost always make poetry better. In fact almost anything makes poetry better.
My mother writes poetry - actually pretty good, if I say so on her behalf. She did recently show me a poem written by a friend that expressed a series of concepts that were really good, but reading the words cold made it look like a literary tram-smash. I think music helps poetry because it puts rhythm, timing and a framework that enables it all to hang together on what can be a seemingly odd collection of words. To get an idea of this, try reading the words of songs without a musical score that you have never heard - often it looks and feels a bit bizarre until you hear it all connected with a tune.
Try being Jimmy Durante and doing "In-a-dink-a-doo" without music.
I am reminded of the description of the three worst types of poetry in the Universe, as found in "Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy". Not sure if this is a cultural reference everyone will get, though.
Wondering if the Vogon words might have been taken from an unabridged dictionary, I checked a few: "Micturations" is a real word, and not a very nice one. The others appear to be of Vogon coinage, transliteration or perhaps a poor translation from the original, for they appear in articles alongside "Jabberwocky." But while Jabberwocky is a masterpiece, well... what can I say?
The world is still not running out of words! Lorraine, does Okish mean OK-ish in your sentence? This got me looking up "OK", which is claimed variously by the Choctaws and the Bantus, and as a long shot, the Abbreviation Fad of the summer of 1838 in Boston, where people did something like texting or tweeting with pen and ink, where NG was "no good", GT "gone to Texas", etc. By their surmise, OK was Old Kinderhook, referring to the home of President Martin Van Buren - OK was used in the election campaign as was "Ike" for Eisenhower in recent times. Of course, I could invent a derivation, saying it referred to the Omnipotent King, but if we let that out, it will appear in a dozen tries at worship songs before we know it:)
Interesting posts guys.
How about the other way around though? There are some lovely melodies and you may be able to pick out a few words if you are lucky, and they sound Okish and quite poetic. So you decide to look up the lyrics and realise they are a load of trash and not poetic at all. Ever been put right off a song by doing that? I have!
Yes! And I don't want to even say what songs they were.
Saul had his moments but it didn't add up to a life.