Linkages: music, poetry, text









Timing and the spoken poem
Sectional analysis of some lines from Wordsworth
Contrast and repetition

This is one of the less developed, less comprehensive pages of the site.

Timing and the spoken poem

Tim Love discusses 'Notation in Poetry and Music' at and claims, rightly, that in poetry, 'the paucity of auxiliary notation is surprising.' Here, I suggest one simple kind of auxiliary notation: a timing.

Compact disks of recorded music have timings for the individual tracks. In the same way, many of the poems on this site have a timing in seconds (s). The timing provides useful information about the spoken poem.

Of all guides for the interpreter, an approximate timing, in seconds, of the complete poem is the simplest. A timing gives information about the poet's interpretation of the poem, or one of the poet's interpretations. Of course, the timing can be disregarded, like a composer's metronome marking. Different timings for a poem are a clue to different interpretations of a poem. Within the timing are accommodated the surges, the climaxes, the giving of weight to words, the significant pauses. Poems, like pieces of music, have, surely, a 'tempo giusto' as well as interpretations of the spoken poem that are insensitive or ludicrous simply because the timing is arguably faulty.

I have two recordings of Beethoven's Symphony Number 6, the Pastoral. Both interpretations seem to me to be badly flawed, in particular the interpretation of the first movement, which bears the title 'Awakening of joyful feelings on arrival in the country.' One interpretation (by Harnoncourt) conveys very little sense of joy because it's too slow, ponderous, sluggish. The other (by Hans Swarowsky) conveys little sense of joy because the movement is rushed. The timing for the first movement in the first version is 13.07 min. and the timing for this movement in the second version is 10.57 min., a significant difference. I'm sure that an artistically successful interpretation of this movement, one at the 'tempo giusto,' must lie between these two, at something like twelve minutes. A timing, then, conveys a great deal about an interpretation.

It's obviously essential to go beyond the timing and to take account of many fine details. Some performances may reveal depths, or telling details, which other performances and recordings don't bring out at all. A slight, insensitive hesitation at one point may be enough to diminish the artistic impact of the work

A gifted interpreter shapes the poetic phrase as sensitively as a gifted singer, instrumentalist or conductor shapes the musical phrase. A musician won't rely on the inspiration of the moment to interpret the score, but will make a careful study of it. In the same way, the interpreter of poetry must study the text thoroughly. The methods of analysis I propose should be helpful in this preliminary work.

Composers have available a notation to give guidance on such matters as tempo and dynamics - allegro, andante, forte, piano, and so on. A notation - necessarily much more simple than the musical one - to guide the interpreter of spoken poetry would be useful.

I would like to see informed comment on different recordings of poetry - before that, of course, the making of different recordings. Even more important, there's the need to foster poetry readings, and the need to respond to spoken poetry with some of the sophistication and intelligence to be found amongst music critics and drama critics, when they consider different interpretations of the same score or text, finding some interpretations searching and very significant, others, perhaps, mannered or pretentious.

[Supplementary: timing in performances of Mahler.]

Tony Duggan makes a very interesting use of timings in his criticism of a performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony (not a recording but a performance conducted by Simon Rattle at the Proms in 1999). He compares the timings for the movements in this performance with the timings for a performance of Boulez on Deutsche Gramophon (Boulez' timings in brackets below):

1. 11.42 (12.52)
2. 12.57 (15.02)
3. 14.56 (18.12)
4. 8.15 (10.59)
5. 13.46 (15.12)

The comments of Tony Duggan below relate to Simon Rattle's performance. To produce the timings above he had to use a stopwatch! This is a memorable instance of the fact that a concern for the technical need not be in conflict with a passionate concern for artistic success and failure, in this case with a passionate concern for conveying Mahler's vision.

"The faster tempo effect was clear right from the beginning in tonight's performance. The Funeral March, so important in establishing the mood of tragedy out of which the contrasts that Mahler is setting up to be resolved emerge, sounded at this speed more wistful than tragic. This was even accentuated by the slightly clipped articulation of the strings, beautifully prepared let it be said, but ultimately surely too careful. I know that in these crucial opening bars what I think Mahler intended was something more weighty and overwhelming...

"The second movement was very fast indeed and here I was reminded of Bruno Walter to start with. There is, of course, a case to be made for the vehement sections to go at a furious pace. However, the conductor should know when to contrast this with a slower tempo when needed, notably the great cello lament. It isn't a question of it being pulled around and moulded, this unforgettable passage ought to contrast more with the maelstrom around it and Rattle failed again to mark this.

"I suppose the performance was still capable of redemption at this point. All hinging on the Scherzo. So it is with regret I have to report that here, for me, Rattle finally blew it. Mahler is on record as saying he knew conductors would ruin this movement by taking it too fast and he was surely right. The performances that are a success are surely the ones that can reconcile overall structure with inner detail, making the listener aware of the episodic nature of the piece, the peaks and troughs, the passages of solitary contemplation set against the passages of wild abandon. Alas, at Rattle's breakneck speed any hope of paying more than a passing nod to the narrower paths of this great movement were doomed...

"The tempo for the Adagietto was, for me, perfect. Would that all conductors could take it at this kind of speed and with this kind of simplicity. The nobility and beauty of the movement is surely enhanced at a flowing tempo..."

And he ends with, "Now, where's my Barbirolli?"

Sectional analysis of some lines from Wordsworth

Phrasing is as important to the interpreter of a poem as it is to the singer, instrumentalist or conductor whose concern is to make the interpretation of the written score as expressive as possible. I've introduced a technique, sectional analysis, for the study of the linkage between the line of poetry, the phrase and the sentence.

I use the term 'sections' to refer to different phrases (present as a whole or in part) in each line, and I use sectional analysis to study the relationship between sections, and in so doing the relationship between lines and phrases. Square brackets are used to enclose phrases. These brackets may be opened and closed within one line, or they may be opened in one line and closed in another. I also refer to 'opening the phrase' and 'closing the phrase.' I apply sectional analysis to some very great lines of 'The Prelude' (lines 452-457, 1805 version) In all the lines except for 454 there are two sections.

452 [And in the frosty season,] [when the sun
453 was set,] [and visible for many a mile
454 The cottage windows through the twilight blazed,]
455 [I heeded not the summons;] [happy time
456 it was indeed for all of us,] [to me
457 it was a time of rapture.] ...

In this extract, short though it is, there's a very effective contrast of phrase length. Shorter phrases are contrasted with the longer phrase which is opened in line 453 and closed in line 454. Line endings may divide the phrase or not: the phrase. 'And in the frosty season' and the phrase 'when the sun was set' are different in the way in which they are linked with the lines. The first phrase is divided, the second is not.

As regards meaning rather than sound, there are remarkable contrasts to do with the meaning of the phrases, giving to the whole passage an overwhelming sensuous immediacy. Each phrase has a dominant theme. Here, I draw attention to words within the phrases:

"frosty season" - cold
"sun was set" - light turned to darkness
"through the twilight blazed" - lighting up the darkness
"happy time" and "a time of rapture" - happiness and an intensification of happiness in the next phrase
"clear and loud" - sound

Sectional analysis and phrase analysis are ways of aiding the appreciation of phrase rhythm in poetry, the counterpart of expressive prose rhythm, and, like the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, contributing to the overall power and beauty of a poem. A close study of phrasing is also useful for the interpreter, who tries to make the spoken poem as effective as possible.

It would be an interesting study to carry out sectional analysis on a great number of lines of poetry in pentameters to find out if it's more common for lines to be divided into sections by the ratio of 2:3 (or 3:2) feet than by the ratio of 1:4 (or 4:1) This study of poetic ratio belongs to the neglected field of  quantitative poetry criticism.  The study of ratio is well established in architecture and the fine arts. The best known example of ratio concerns the 'golden section.' The golden section is defined in terms of a line divided in such a way that the smaller section is to the greater as the greater is to the whole. It can also be defined in terms of the proportion of the two dimensions of a plane figure. The golden section can't be calculated in exact mathematical terms, but is approximately 5:8 (the ratio above of 2:3 is closer to this than 1:4, of course.) A great many artists and architects have used the golden section, consciously or unconsciously. The proportion between exterior and interior in a zoned poem is another instance of poetic ratio. The harmony of a great painting or a great building may be linked with mathematical relationships.

In general, '...wherever Proportion exists at all, one member of the composition must be either larger than, or in some way supreme over, the rest. There is no proportion between equal things.' (Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, IV 26.)

In his discussion of the first paragraph of 'Tintern Abbey' in his book 'The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth's Metrical Art,' Brennan O' Donnell provides this note (P. 271):

'In Wordsworth's careful structuring both of this introductory verse paragraph and of the poem as a whole - particularly his gradual accumulation of descriptive detail and his amassing of smaller formal structures into larger and more comprehensive structures - Lee M. Johnson has found evidence that Wordsworth constructed the poem according to strict geometrical proportions: " "Tintern Abbey" is a modified Pindaric ode in the form of a double golden section, which is built upon the lesser details of repeated images and the ornamental patterns of misple binaries" (Wordsworth's Metaphysical Verse, 60).

Contrast and repetition

The contrasts that are so common within single works of music are very instructive. In classical sonata form, the slow movement of a symphony, concerto, string quartet or sonata may be an adagio, the finale very much faster: molto allegro or presto. There may be differences of tone which are equally marked: to give just one example, the second and fourth movements of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. There are analogues in poetry for musical contrasts of tempo and contrasts of tone, but not for contrasts of key.

In general, the use of contrast in music is instructive for students of poetry, but so also is music's use of repetition. This is despite the fact that one procedure in classical music would be unthinkable in poetry: repetition of a sizeable block, the repetition of an entire exposition section in sonata form ('block' including music at its most inspired). Repetition in this one context should not lead us to believe that exact repetition is common in other musical contexts. The classical composer uses such differences as differences in instrumentation and the all-important differences of tonality to deflect exact repetition.

Classical music is strongly directional, the music drawn towards the closing chord as strongly as water drawn towards a waterfall. Repetition of an exposition section has to be understood in the context of directionality. The development section which follows the exposition will be strongly directional. Repeating the exposition makes the listener more fully aware of what the listener knows will be developed and given further direction. This is repetition with expectation.

Repetition in poetry doesn't serve the same structural (and dynamic purposes). In such a directional art, repetition is anti-directional, not, as in sonata form, the prelude to further momentum. This is repetition as a series of reminders of a first occurrence.

The size of the repeated element is less important than the number of repetitions. The exposition section is repeated once. When repetition takes place in poetry, it is often much more than twice. Yeats repeats the line 'Daybreak and a candle-end' seven times in his poem 'The Wild Old Wicked Man.'

I think that almost all repetition in poetry is problematic. To begin with the final stanza of Blake's 'The Tyger.' This is an exact repetition of the first (except for the substitution of 'Dare frame' for 'Could frame.') This repetition cannot be counted a success in this otherwise magnificent poem. (Blake's design for this poem is another weakness - the picture is tame and devoid of power.)

It's difficult to achieve artistic success even with repetition of short elements, such as a single line. In general, the more obvious the repetition the less the artistic success - although the overall success may be very great. In the same way, the more obvious the rhyme, the less the artistic success. Deflecting attention from a repetition in poetry is valuable, as was deflecting attention from a repetition in classical music.So also is naturalness of repetition, the seeming inevitability of repetition. This is one of the reasons why I admire the villanelles of Jared Carter, which I discuss in the page on Modulation.

Few if any great poets have used repetition of lines as much as Yeats, one of the twentieth century poets I most admire, and I think that in every case, the repetition diminishes the artistic success of the poem. Just a few examples:

'Crazy Jane On God' and repetition of
All things remain in God.

'Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks At The Dancers and repletion of
Love is like the lion's tooth.

'The Curse of Cromwell' and repetition of
O what of that, O what of that,
what is there left to say?

'The Wild Old Wicked Man' and repetition of
Daybreak and a candle-end.

'The Pilgrim' and repetition of
'fol de rol de rolly O' (preceded by 'Is,' 'But,' or 'Was.'

'Long-legged fly' and repetition of
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

Yeats uses repetition on a larger scale than repetition of one or two lines. In 'Three Marching Songs' there's repetition of four lines in each of the songs. In the second, there's repetition of
What marches through the mountain pass?
No, no, my son, not yet;
That is an airy spot
And no man knows what treads the grass.

Almost half of the thirty-one lines of the intolerable poem 'I Am Of Ireland' consists of the repeated lines

'I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,' cried she.
'Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.'