The Guardian view on music and poetry: growing up together | Editorial

Cultural forms built with words were once all indistinguishable, but in popular culture they are again coalescing. Figures such as Chuck Berry and Derek Walcott were part of bringing them together

The deaths of Derek Walcott and Chuck Berry prompt the question: what’s going to happen to poetry? In their very different ways, the two men worked on opposite sides of the great divide in reading that has grown up since the rise of amplified music. At least since the invention of printing, poetry has been written to be read in silence and perhaps in solitude. The rhythmic subtleties of Browning, Eliot, Graves and Walcott, too, all depend on the reader’s close attention to the voice they can only hear in their heads. This was not always or everywhere so; there are traditions of incantation and rhodomontade. Kipling and GK Chesterton could both write to a beat that pounds along, and the bouncy ones have been some of the most widely popular poets, but they have not often produced the words that readers have cupped in their hearts, lights sheltered from the wind.

The pleasures of subtly rhythmic poetry depend on hearing the beat that is not played, the pattern that persists in absence, in the same way that music can only really be listened to by hearing the gaps between the notes. Omnipresent amplified music designed to be half-listened to, along with the general noisiness of contemporary life, blunts our ability to hear anything not made explicit, and when that goes much of the traditional skill of reading vanish with it. Poetry is, at the very least, language sharpened to its finest edge. There should be no spare words in a poem any more than there should be any missing. Much of the bad poetry of the past, which is not so much unread as almost impossible to read today, violates these rules and won’t be missed when it is completely forgotten. But what about the good stuff that may also be forgotten?

Poetry, music and religion must all once have been indistinguishable, but they separated millennia ago in the west. In popular culture, at least, they are once more coalescing. In its way, the award of the Nobel prize for literature to Bob Dylan recognised this huge shift. It is impossible to understand the impact of his words if you first come on them written out on the page. Without his voice, and the games that it plays with the music, they lose almost all their force. Chuck Berry’s forceful and witty lyrics are not great poetry in any dimension, but they are hugely memorable, and known to millions by heart because of the way they are embedded in the music, and that music is embedded in our memories and lives. If even 100,000 people could quote Walcott by heart today, that would be surprising.

This is a real loss, not just an expression of nostalgia. Poetry is preserved in writing, but it comes to life in the heart. Just as the loss of foreign language skills cuts us and our children off from entire worlds of experience which Google Translate will never show us, even in glimpses, the loss of the kind of attention needed to hear poetry cuts people off from one of the deepest experiences of humanity. But there is hope. It is almost a definition of great poetry that it creates the silence around itself that it needs to be heard in, just as great music can. A hundred years from now, there will still be children who pick up Walcott and hear his voice speaking clearly to their hearts.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Chuck wrote history of rock’n’roll music | Letters
Letters: His set of classic rock’n’roll numbers was explosive

Letters

20, Mar, 2017 @6:47 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Leonard Cohen: art lasts; life doesn’t | Editorial
Editorial: Poetry is an endless conversation and argument with the dead – the most important talk we’ll ever have

Editorial

11, Nov, 2016 @6:41 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on: poetry in a pandemic | Editorial
Editorial: To express the grief and dislocation of our times, only poems will do

Editorial

29, Jan, 2021 @6:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on grime music: sound of protest | Editorial
Editorial: An urban artform that resurrects rebellion has gained credibility and popularity through mainstream indifference. It’s time to take notice

Editorial

02, Jan, 2017 @7:11 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on immortality: not for the faint-hearted | Editorial
Editorial: The faithful and the futurologists imagine life without death. But living forever may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and then what?

Editorial

13, Apr, 2017 @6:05 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Tony Harrison: a people’s poet | Editorial
Editorial: In embracing the past as a way of tackling the present, he remains a constant reminder of the power of words to tell us about the world we all live in

Editorial

28, Apr, 2017 @6:22 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on poetry in schools: don't let it go | Editorial
Editorial: Finding meaning in verse can be a challenge for teenagers. But it is also a joy, and letting them drop it is the wrong move

Editorial

07, Aug, 2020 @4:38 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the ‘yellowface’ casting row: classical music has a diversity problem | Editorial
Editorial: The pulling of Peter Eötvös’s opera The Golden Dragon from the Hackney Empire must provoke some tough thinking

Editorial

15, Oct, 2017 @5:29 PM

Article image
TS Eliot poetry prize goes to Sinéad Morrissey's Parallax
Belfast's first poet laureate joins the ranks of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott as winner of prestigious £15,000 award

Alison Flood

13, Jan, 2014 @8:26 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Brexit and publishing: a hardcore problem | Editorial
Editorial: London book fair has shown how upbeat the literary world can be – and how worried our cultural businesses have become at the thought of losing old certainties

Editorial

17, Mar, 2017 @7:01 PM