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The Poetics of Music and the Music of Poetry

ART TIMES May 2006

In too many classrooms, there are endless missed opportunities to tie together different disciplines. Physics and trigonometry should certainly profit by being taught as a single class. English literature and history might also be a very good idea, and so on. I do not mean that the entire term should be such a blend; but certainly any good English teacher should know enough about history to carry it off; and any science teacher not very skilled in math should not be teaching science on any level above the 5th grade.

This month, I would like to make a special case for teaching poetry and music as a combined course—and see how many sing along.

If a class is going to be bored to death with a Wordsworth poem, why not try a set of lyrics by Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, or Irving Berlin? Or choose something more recent, if one can find lyrics familiar to the class that can safely be taught in a classroom. Treat it as a pure poem. Discuss its meaning in any of the traditional ways or in some imaginative way. No two teachers will have the same approach.

Then talk about the meter. Read it with all the strong syllables exaggeratedly emphasized. Have the class discover how many weak syllables there are between the strong ones, how many strong ones in each line. Have the class chant the thing, pounding on the desk at each strong beat. Have some pound out the strong ones while the others slap out the weak ones. Do it with the words being recited, then without the words.

Last of all, you can talk about the rhyme scheme and teach several possible rhyme schemes such as AABB, ABAB, ABBA, and so on.

Here comes the hard part. If you have chosen lyrics from a song unfamiliar to the class, have someone suggest a melody for it. Take other suggestions. Have fun. Then play the original to see how close any of the students came.

In fact, it will work backwards. Play the song first. Then discuss the rhyme scheme, the beat scheme, and end up with a discussion of the meaning of the lyrics.

A different approach that might work would go like this. Bring in several recorded examples of instrumental music, classical and popular, and then have a single short poem read as each recording is played as background. Have the students discuss which musical selections seem to fit the poem best. In fact, it could be a passage of prose, not necessarily a poem. But let us stick to poetry at this time.

I used to do this on tape. I found a perfect fit when I read Tennyson’s “Ulysses” against the dawn sequence of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” ballet, especially the original version with the wordless chorus towards the end. Of course, I had to time the crescendos in my reading with those of the music, but that is part of the fun.

In fact, a chap who runs one of the smaller record companies put out two CDs of poetry read against classical music; but he insisted on playing the entire movements and had to repeat some of the poems, sometimes three times, to suit the timing. Some of the tries worked, most did not. But having your students go through all of the above will certainly introduce them to a good deal of music that is worth knowing and, it is hoped, a good deal of poetry of equal value.

Far more difficult but really challenging would be to play some instrumental versions of popular tunes of the past and have the students study the beat patterns. Then they should try to compose poems using that same pattern of strong and weak beats. Once the results are in, you can let them know what the original lyrics are.

It occurs to me that students who play a musical instrument should take to these lessons with more understanding than those who do not play.

Being all this as it may, I should certainly love to hear from any parents or teachers (and any good parent IS a teacher) who have tried any of these or similar methods. How successful were they? What were the snags? With what kind of classes did they work/not work? And so on. My e-mail is fbehrens@ne.rr.com.

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