Friday 16 April 2021

Robert van Vliet : part four

How important is music to your poetry?

It is so absolutely fundamental that it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve begun to fully grasp this, much less notice. I don’t mean, however, that I have to listen to music while I write. In fact, I usually don’t. I mean that music has always been part of my inner life; it’s where I started and where, if you’d asked me anytime before my early 20s, I thought I would stay. I started playing the violin when I was about four years old. I sang in choirs in high school. I picked up the guitar when I was seventeen and started writing songs. I even went to college thinking I might be a music composition major. 

Once I began writing poetry seriously, I came to think of poems as scores for unaccompanied voice. That is: as much as the text must be able to live silently on the page, it’s not quite complete until it’s read aloud. How does it sound? How does it feel in your mouth? How does it make you breathe?

Unlike a musical score, however, the text of a poem has no additional notation for, say, tempo or pitch; any sense of meter or rhythm is discernable only to the extent that it conforms to, or works against, the natural speech patterns and syllabic stresses in the language. There are no costumes or stage directions; there’s no soundtrack or laugh track. If I want a poem to be read in a certain way, I have only vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and line breaks to guide the reader. It is, in the end, up to each reader to decide how to perform the poem. This is the first of many moments where the writer and reader are collaborators.

The great Hal Holbrook died recently, and his obit in the New York Times closed with this wonderful quote: “[Twain] had a real understanding of the difference between the word on the page and delivering it on a platform. … You have to leave out a lot of adjectives. The performer is an adjective.”

I think this may be one of the reasons why poetry seems so minimal compared to other artforms, particularly the language arts of fiction and drama: poetry expects the reader to be an adjective.

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