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The Musicianship of Poetry

Have you ever watched a singing show like The Voice or American Idol? If you’re an American, I’m sure you have, at least accidentally. Every season seems to have at least one (sometimes several) artist that puts runs at the end of every line, or goes off-melody to hit a high note every fourth word. Technically, it’s impressive (usually), but people who do that typically don’t win. Why? Because there’s no artistry in it. There’s no musicianship. A singer with great musicianship has all those runs in their repertoire and can hit those high notes as well as anyone else, but they save them for moments where they fit. They know you have to have some plain moments to offset the great moments; otherwise the great moments become plain. This is musicianship in a nutshell; interweaving moments of greatness with moments of plainness, and knowing which one to choose in a given moment.

Musicianship applies to poetry as well. Our musicianship comes from things like figures of speech, figures of thought, word choice, and even rhyme. There are many devices poets can use; what makes a poem great is choosing the right ones for the poem. A common one most people know is alliteration. Alliteration is repeating the same consonant sound. It’s a device that should never be pursued for its own sake, but often turns a good line into a great line, or a great line into an epic line. Ever read or heard a poem that sounded really tight or sharp? They probably used alliteration.

Take for example the following line:

     But know their voices ring beyond the Sun,

There’s no alliteration in this line at all, yet it’s still a decent line of iambic pentameter. But watch as I make one subtle change for alliteration:

     But know their voices sing beyond the Sun,

Changing “ring” to “sing” doesn’t change the meaning of the line all that much; I would argue it means the exact same thing. Yet using sing instead gives a pair of ‘s” sounds following the assonance of “oh” sounds in the first half of the line. It turns a good line into a great one. Watch again as I make one more change for alliterative purposes:

     But know their silence sings beyond the Sun,

This time, I’ve completely changed the whole meaning of the line. I’ve also destroyed the assonance found earlier in the line for the sake of my alliteration. I’ve also changed the tense: it’s now singular instead of plural. Now could this change be apt? Perhaps; if singing silence makes more sense in the poem than singing voices. (In the poem I borrowed this line from, voices makes more sense.) But I’d be sacrificing quite a bit to do it. In a vacuum, this would be a net negative change. The poetic equivalent of using one too many runs.

This is what I mean by musicianship. A good musician can play the notes in front of them; a great musician can take the notes and give them life. Good guitarists know every note and every chord; great guitarists know when to use them. Poetry is the same. A good poet sticks with good lines; a great poet turns good lines into great lines. A good poet knows the different kinds of poetic devices; a great poet knows when to use them. Yet great poets, like great musicians, cannot be great without first learning their craft. I don’t care how good a guitarist’s ear is; if he only knows twelve chords, he’s going to be stunted. Likewise, a poet that only knows a handful of poetic devices will always be limited.

So take the time to learn all the poetic devices you can; but take the extra time to discover how best to use them. Remember, practice makes perfect.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Adam Mann