Writing Poetry to Music: Two Exercises
For the better part of the first three decades of my life, poetry was like that odd metal thingamajig next to the lakeside path of life. I would see people stopping to look at it, and a friend of mine even told me once that it was art, but it just looked like a mess to me. Now that I am taking writing seriously, poetry is still that odd metal thingamajig, but I take the time to study it instead of just walking by. I’m convinced that there’s something interesting going on there, though, more often than not, I still walk away with an expression of cock-eyed wonder.
Having spent the first thirty years of my life studying music, there was one thing about poetry—and writing in general—that had always made sense to me, however: the color and rhythm of words. The authors I loved most created writing infused with an underlying sense of music: Whitman was a symphony, Morrison sang the blues, and Conrad cut precise chords with the razor sharp edge of a string quartet.
Naturally, when I took up writing, I became interested in exploring the sound and rhythm of words. Below are two poetic experiments designed around playing with sound and rhythm that I have enjoyed playing with along with examples, general instructions, and original sources. If you love the music of words, give them a read and then try them yourself. I'd love to hear about where they take you!
First Exercise: An Adaptation of Le Guin's "Being Gorgeous"
The poem below comes originally from a prose exercise taken out of Steering the Craft, by the wonderful writer Ursula K. Le Guin (Le Guin 26). Essentially, her directions were to write a short piece in which you make sound equally important with meaning in selecting the words you use to compose the piece. She encouraged using any and all sound devices possible while avoiding the obvious moves of rhyme and meter. Working within her parameters gave me the chance to compose the music woven into the words of my writing in a tight, small-form piece.
Here’s what I came up with:
Speak of the Silken Moon
Speak of the silken moon as it sings—
a quiet solo of delicate color:
Listen gently. Ever-so-gently,
as she pours her white light down through
the deep, deep waters of a black velvet sky.
Slowly. Ever so slowly, her light descends
like snow on a soft summer’s eve,
submerging the shadow-filled Earth
in a dance of dimly shimmering white.
standing tall with leafless limbs, look up
and whisper softly to the breeze, “She is there.
She is there and she sings for us.”
In mute celebration they raise their hands,
thin as spider silk and shadowy-black as pitch.
They raise their hands to the deep night
sky and stretch, and reach, and beseech
the moon, “Again! Again thy sweet song!
Let your light spill down once again
and run its bright course through our fingers
outstretched. Bless us once more
with thy sweet seraph’s light.”
She sings once more.
Ever returning to sing the blessings of her song to the night.
Other Poetry Hubs by wayseeker:
- Writing Poetry: How to Write a Sestina
- Reading Poetry, Writing Poetry: On How Poets Think
Reflections on the First Exercise:
This was a fascinating exercise to attempt, and, though I expected to work at it musically since that’s my history, the actual writing process did not come out quite the way I thought it would. I thought much less about form as I wrote and much more about the moment-to-moment relationships among the sounds of the words. This caused me to focus more on sound than meaning, and I think doing it that way may have paradoxically lead to a deeper meaning. By focusing on the individual words, I was much more attentive to following the flow of sound and meaning between the words themselves instead of trying to craft words to fit a preconceived plan.
Working the exercise definitely tuned me in to listening for the flow of my sentence construction and forced a more colorful word choice. I am now very intentional about composing the music that runs beneath my prose, and I regularly read my work aloud during revision.
If you’re up for a creative experiment, I highly recommend trying this; it shifts your focus just enough to make the experience of writing it something new!
Second Exercise: An Adaptation of Kiteley's "Delillo"
This poetry exercise is derived from a fiction exercise called "Delillo" found in the book The Three A.M. Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley (Kiteley 144). His exercise, in contrast to Le Guin's, suggests that you write three paragraphs and focus solely on the sound of the words—completely ignoring their actual meaning. This was easily the strangest writing exercise I’ve ever done, and, while it turned out to be very difficult to let go of meaning, it also turned out to be quite a consciousness-expanding experience.
All that said, let me give you fair warning that this is a very bizarre poem, reminiscent in some ways of Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells”, though it does not even approach them in quality. Because the real meaning of the poem is in its sound and movement, be sure to read it aloud if you can (though you may want to be sure you’re alone so those around you don’t start to wonder why you’re babbling rhythmic nonsense):
The Sluice of Juice is Latter Deuce
The Sluice of Juice is Latter Deuce
The sluice of juice is latter deuce—
of happen tarot know.
But in the song how low the long
of total tarot know. So we see
a mighty noose, so very loose,
and very full for all.
Wait. Wait—a call. Is it wrong?
The song of moose and glow?
I do not know. It might be loose,
or maybe low, or maybe tied in all.
It matters not. It’s not my ball—the total call.
This I see and this I know—
that within the fall the tarot
know, the juice is loose, and it
sighs in the nights I know.
The sing of the ring makes
the moose goose fling
and I grip sip flip dip doll.
Yet the latter is a batter and I scatter
scatter scatter in the matter
of the ring sing fling.
Still—the king might clatter
getting fatter fatter fatter then pop!
See the sighs of the nights I know.
The roll of mole is in a hole—
of molten golden truce. But see the mole
how bright the toll of golden
gossamer truce. Come neigh,
my friend, for its all of a deuce
and now of an autumnal goal.
Then know of the row in the nights I know
of the sighs in the nights
Reflections on the Second Exercise:
I began writing this piece by spending several hours writing words that just had too much meaning together. I couldn’t let it go. Slowly, with great labor, something more random started to come together, and I finally got the words to come to me because of their sound as opposed to their meaning—quite an upside down experience, but very eye-opening.
If you read the poem, you will find that there is still a vague kind of meaning inside the sentences themselves, though very little from one to another. As I drew on my musical roots and worked the movement of the words, I was surprised to find how the exercise accentuated the purpose and importance of punctuation; it was invaluable in helping to shape the movement and flow of the sound.
If you found this poem to be at all interesting, I highly suggest you try it. Your brain will do somersaults struggling to get in the groove, but once you do, it’s a fun ride!
Kiteley, Brian. The 3 A.M. Epiphany. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 2005.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.