blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Rakosi--"A Note on Music and the Musical"

A Note on Music and the Musical
Carl Rakosi

In the course of tracing the effect of certain forms on my poems, I stumbled on to an interesting connection to music. Needless to say, certain forms were more suitable to certain subject matter than others. The long line, for instance, was obviously better suited to developing a large representation and the short line was better suited to making a point or an image. But apart from that, form kept sending a message that it had something of its own to express. A box shape, for example, gave a boxed-in feeling to a poem. And a poem shaped like a rectangle looked severe. The longer the rectangle the more up-tight it looked, the very long finally looking constipated and puritanical. Breaking this mold and letting more space in between words and lines and changing their fixed positions, immediately made a poem look more airy and graceful ... easier on the eye ... and seemed to liberate its lyrical spirit and restore it to its original impulse.

It was at this point that I perceived a connection to music, for when I extended the usual space between words, I became aware that I was registering them in the mind as individual entities and signalling that this was where and now was when the mind should meditate on them and summon their associations. And when I extended the space between lines, enough to make the reader wonder why, and moved them to the right or left, I became aware for the first time that the space between words and lines was not a null, as I had always assumed, that when I liberated it from its mold, it became expressive, a part of a poem's score, as it were, and when I did not hurry on, as usual, to the words but made myself stay with it, I became aware of a subliminal effect not unlike the silences in a Beethoven quartet when the spirit of the listener is summoned to resonate to the emotion being expressed in the notes. This resonance is anticipated by the composer in his tempo markings which instruct the performer just how much time he must allow between notes, and is as much a part of the music as the notes themselves; is in fact the element necessary to give the music its fullest depth and special poignancy. All one has to do is to imagine a score with identical silences between notes, as in a popular song, to see that this is so.

What is one to make of this correspondence? Are the space between words and lines and the silence between notes really equivalents? I am not able to carry this further without becoming too abstract and diffuse, and there is not much point anyhow in claiming that they are. A better question to ask is what correspondences and connections are there between the intentions and effects of poetry and the intentions and effects of music, and how does the nature of their resources affect this. Not all kinds of poetry and music, naturally. . . . I’d never be able to get out of such a jungle ... just lyric poetry, which seems to me closest to the original poetic impulse (not to be confused with the impulse to write poetry, which everybody with an ego and a problem these days seems to have or can be taught to simulate), just lyric poetry and chamber music.

They both aim for the heart. Music travels straight to it and wrenches it. The effect is instant. Not so poetry. Its lyrical impulse is tempered and modified at the very start by the nature of language, which places cognitive expectations on itself. To get to the heart, therefore, the lyrical impulse has to sneak around them by a devious and complex route of word associations and timbres and cadence. Indirection is its very nature. Its effect, in fact, depends on it and on subtlety and keeping under cover, otherwise the poet will be blamed for manipulating the reader. A kind of game between impulse and language in which language allows impulse to go its way but not openly and directly. In return, impulse gives up part of itself and takes on the burden of the cognitive demands of language.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that to the poet, the man of words, it is an endless wonder not to be believed that music can achieve its effects without any words or devices of any kind; that its great power, in fact, comes from that fact. You'd think composers would feel that this great world of profound feeling in which the experience of music is the most existential in the arts because it is closest to pure being, is the best of all possible worlds. They do not. They are not quite satisfied. Apparently they sense something is missing because they too in time turn to words or assign a verbal, real-life meaning to music that is in no way realistic or verbal pretending that what they had in mind was music's equivalent to this or that reality. Did not Beethoven himself end the Ninth Symphony with Schiller’s Ode To Joy? And Schubert set any number of minor poets of his day (plus Goethe) to music? And Poulenc set Apollinaire and Max Jacob to music, etc., etc.?

Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, composers have minds as well as feelings and cant be expected to be content forever with only a world of feeling. And they too have been encoded with cognitive expectations and sooner or later feel the need for words.

To a poet, however, the coming together of music and poetry in a so-called "art-song" is not a blessed event. It is a union in which both lose, in my opinion: the music suffers from not being allowed to develop to its fullest on its own, and the poetry is diminished by being deprived of its own music and taken over by the creative imagination of a different art, a different mind, and a different voice, and consigned to playing second fiddle to them. Only when the words in a poem are not good enough to stand on their own is there a possible improvement. In that case, one can disregard the words and experience just the music and the singer's voice per se. In any case, I wonder whether the composer of art songs realizes what a complex, perhaps impossible task he has set the singer, to straddle both universes and to express both.

If it is true that the composer does not feel quite complete without words, it is equally true that a good poet does not feel complete without music in his language. He hears it, in fact, as he works on a poem. A mutual yearning, as it were, for each other.

From Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet. Ed. Michael Heller. Copyright 1993 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Return to Carl Rakosi