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Can You Sing a Poem?

Updated on August 24, 2017

Formal versus Free Verse

Formal means following the rules for that particular form, say a Petrarchean sonnet or a villanelle. Free verse means you aren't following any specific or explicit rules. The line is the central structure of poetry. Generally, a line will start at the left hand margin.

In this lens we look at basic styles of expression to determine the "singability" of a poem. Examples will be given. I imagine some intuitives will be able to sense what poems can be sung to what melodies. I can't seem to do that. I count beats. For example,

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow

And everywhere that Mary went that lamb was sure to go.

I count seven beats per line. If you know a song that has a similar beat, maybe we can apply that melody to Mary, Nothing's perfect in this world, and it's OK to cheat.

One final note before getting underway. In keeping with the theme of my other lenses, we shall be looking at the surface of these words, at how they sound, and also how those sounds are voiced differently. This may require the reader to say them or sing them aloud. This is the whole point! That insuperable question with which readers flog a poem, worse than Abu Graib, is, "What is your meaning?" We won't even consider that.

Learning about the surface

theory or immersion

I don't want you to learn that Shakespeare wrote his plays in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Pentameter mean five beats; iambs are two syllables with the stress on the second. "To be or not to be . . . " Let me be so severe as to break it down thusly: American English is loosely all iambic. OK.

I would rather immerse you, like the Baptist minister down by the river, in the waters of poetry and song. So, first the poem. Entitled "His Excuse For Loving" by Ben Johnson, it's about 450 years old, and yet there's not one difficult word in its 24 lines. I want you to read it once, strictly for sound value, almost child like, and yet I know I can't implicitly trust you. Therefore, I shall pretend I have an online class, that we're doing this in real time, and you have been chosen to read it aloud first time for the class of, say, 50 people from around the world. You needn't worry about sense, though it's impossible not to. Go slow and listen to the sounds your mouth makes.

His Excuse for Loving

by Ben Jonson

Let it not your wonder move,

Less your laughter, that I love.

Though I now write fifty years,

I have had, and have, my peers.

Poets, though divine, are men;

Some have loved as old again.

And it is not always face,

Clothes, or fortune gives the grace,

Or the feature, or the youth;

But the language and the truth,

With the ardor and the passion,

Gives the lover weight and fashion.

If you then would hear the story,

First, prepare you to be sorry

That you never knew till now

Either whom to love or how;

But be glad as soon with me

When you hear that this is she

Of whose beauty it was sung,

She shall make the old man young,

Keep the middle age at stay,

And let nothing hide decay,

Till she be the reason why

All the world for love may die.

Good job! Now, to further keep our mind off of meaning, we shall sing it, with each of our classmates singing it to herself or himself. You know the song, but hold on.

Just to clear things up for the theorists among us, it goes stress, unstressed, stress, unstressed; unstressed, unstressed, stressed. I think that's seven syllables. Anyway, to the tune of "Twinkle, twinkle, little Star," sing it!

Formal or Free Verse - The older and the contemporary

The formal will have rhyme, a regular rhythm and enjoy a consistent structure. The contemporary can be confusing, out there and, like, anything goes. It's what most practicing poets employ.

What kind of poem do you prefer?

Music and poetry are sister arts-a truism embedded in the word "lyric."

Robert Pinsky

former Poet Laureate

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This ballad was published around 1800; thus it's safely in the public domain. I've reprinted here just Part One of its seven parts. I guess it's written in iambic tetrameter (four beats). You remember iambs from Shakespeare: unstressed, stressed. I assume you're well versed enough now to just let you go on this thing and enjoy the story.

I have every belief that the creators of this tune, this melody, knew and loved this Rime. Their particular treatment enjoyed another kind of success. I can say no more. (You can get help with the story. There are differing interpretations, to be sure.) But sing it, my friends, to the tune of "Gilligans Island."

Part I

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three.

`By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The bridegroom's doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast is set:

Mayst hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,

"There was a ship," quoth he.

`Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'

Eftsoons his hand dropped he.

He holds him with his glittering eye -

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years' child:

The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

"The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top.

The sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

Higher and higher every day,

Till over the mast at noon -"

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,

For he heard the loud bassoon.

The bride hath paced into the hall,

Red as a rose is she;

Nodding their heads before her goes

The merry minstrelsy.

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,

Yet he cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

"And now the storm-blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong:

He struck with his o'ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,

As who pursued with yell and blow

Still treads the shadow of his foe,

And forward bends his head,

The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,

And southward aye we fled.

And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold:

And ice, mast-high, came floating by,

As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts

Did send a dismal sheen:

Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -

The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,

Thorough the fog it came;

As it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,

And round and round it flew.

The ice did split with a thunder-fit;

The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,

It perched for vespers nine;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white moonshine."

`God save thee, ancient Mariner,

From the fiends that plague thee thus! -

Why look'st thou so?' -"With my crossbow

I shot the Albatross."

The Denouement

Do you ever listen to Jazz?

Robert Pinsky has written for some time about the nice fit music and poetry can have. Pinsky played sax in high school and has, I believe, a natural affinity for jazz. Many poets do.

Jazz has never proven my cup of tea, exactly. Still, remember at the outset how we couldn't match a song to a poem if that poem were too irregular? I think it may work with jazz. In a way, it's like anything goes, Cole Porter all over again.

Consider an evening at home and a certain routine. It's relaxing, yet no two evenings are really exactly alike. Even if you do the same things---eat, read, argue, make love, answer emails---you do it differently. That's how I think of jazz, of improvisation. If I may say, free verse poets have read and written formal verse, perhaps most of their life. They aren't breaking the rules for no reason.

I want to acknowledge Pinsky( for his "Twinkle, twinkle, little Star" tip. Also, for his summation of what it's like for him to read poetry among jazz musicians,

"Listening to the musicians, hearing them responding to what I do as a kind of nonsinging vocalist, I try to hear several rhythms, several currents of harmony and emotion, all at once. I think of the performances as demonstrating something that is in the poems: not replacing it, but showing its nature. At these times, essential, separate themes of my life come together as one."

I have not been to that place Pinsky speaks of, but I can almost imagine it. I save the last for the best. Robert Frost speaks of writing a poem but also, from our perspective, the reading of a poem. I find it such a delight that I want to share it with the world.

"It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement." Thanks!

Sing It Loud - Because your voice sounds good!

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    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 

      6 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I only sing when no one can hear me. (So if no one heard the sound, did the sound actually happen? LOL)

    • profile image

      Donnette Davis 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Aah I can't sing period! The kids run a mile...

    • LizMac60 profile image

      Liz Mackay 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      I love to sing all day long, but my family don't always appreciate it.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      7 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for this very interesting lens, I enjoyed it very much, will be looking into this kind of works future. There is nothing more satisfying than singing, this is a different way I have not seen before.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is great and I learnt a lot from reading just this one lens! Nice jobl


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