by Kathleen Driskell Spalding MFA Faculty, Poetry
“…it’s usually the music that takes the poem from proficient to unforgettable.”
Recently, I was asked to judge a poetry competition that called me to read and think about hundreds of poems. Sifting through heaps of entries, I found, as I usually do when judging a poetry contest (or when I’m looking through submissions for The Louisville Review) that nearly all poems submitted are proficient, obviously made with some know-how. And because of that it might seem an impossible task to choose a handful of “winners” and “honorable mentions” from the many, but surprisingly, it never really is.
After years of reading poems in my roles as teacher, editor, or judge, I’ve learned I can cull the stack quickly from five hundred to twenty. In the selection process, of course, personal tastes come into play. I prefer a poem (and strive to write a poem) that marries clarity and complexity in both content and form, and the poem I recently selected as a “winner” had those things, but…it also was full of rhythm and music, qualities deemed essential to every definition of poetry that I find
Often poets come to workshop to learn if a poem is “understood.” I generally take this to mean poets want to know whether a reading of the text yields the themes they had hoped to express. Most often these questions focus on the logic of the textual narrative. Does one idea or image lead to another? Does the meaning become clear through syntax and word choice? These are all important questions, but not the only questions.
Poets can be served well by comparing their compositional practice to those of filmmakers. Pretend we’ve just plopped down to watch Slumdog Millionaire, Tootsie, or Titanic, but without the added musical scores.
Yes. We would understand the basic narrative of the story, but filmmakers don’t want to render basic narrative. They want to use all their tools—including music—to tell their stories. Music isn’t simply added as decoration or an afterthought; rather it is one of the many tools necessary to complete the composition. Poets, too, should be asking if the rhythms and music are working to build narrative or that thematic sense in their work.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” is a masterpiece of marrying rhythm and music to other fundamentals of narrative. Follow this link to the Poetry Foundation and listen to the audio reading provided for “God’s Grandeur”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44395
You’ll hear that Hopkins creates rhythms and music that rise and fall, soften and build, and interweave essentially, necessarily, with the text.
In the first stanza, hear how the poem’s music works with textual meaning to create majesty and mystery; then, listen as the cadence turns to rhythms that evoke the working drudgery of the proletariat. In the second stanza, hear how the music soars high in a suggested reprieve for that day-to-day labor, and then builds to redeeming crescendo. The music helps the reader locate the climax of “God’s Grandeur,” and then soothes in a culminating couplet that eases us out of the poem. The music makes this poem unforgettable, and, put simply, as I sift through to find those that go into the “yes” stack, it’s usually the music that takes the poem from proficient to unforgettable.
Kathleen Driskell teaches poetry and helps direct the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky. Her latest books are Blue Etiquette (Red Hen 2016) and Next Door to the Dead (UPKY 2015).