Poetry, Music and my Brain

One of my appointment podcasts is Scriptnotes (a podcast about screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters).  It’s very entertaining and has a lot of great insight into not only screenwriting, but writing in general.

In a November episode, co-host Craig Maizin made an observation about poetry I’ve probably heard before, but never so bluntly, and it’s stuck with me since.  Discussing the importance of sound and audio in a film, Craig emphasizes the point that aural experience is a very primal thing saying, “Yeah, it’s why people listen to poetry set to music but don’t read poetry. I mean, some of it’s not poetry.  But they don’t even read bad poetry. They will listen to bad poetry.”

It reminded me of another thought I had heard regarding poetry.  I can’t recall where I heard this, but it was something to the effect of it’s important to learn to write poetry within forms before really diving into free verse in order to better understand how poetry works, sort of a ‘you need to learn and understand the rules before you break them’ piece of advice.

This made me think of the poems that I do like.  It’s a fairly short list – I am guilty of what Craig said to a large degree, but I do know a few poems.  My perennial all-time favorite winner has to be The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service, but also include Television by Roald Dahl, and some of the Psalms.

Even without a score, the poems that connect with me are musical.  Just reading such a poem, I can feel the rhythm, the throbbing pulse of it, and watch the tempo change over the page, rapidly surging with excitement, or slowing down on reflection.  I can hear the rise and fall of the melody, hear the minor chords of sorry, the major chords of joy, and the delicious suspension holding me rapt in tension.

This is why music can be a much more intense experience for us, the same way a movie can be more intense emotionally than a book.  When I read a poem, I create the aural portion of it; I compose the music and play the instruments in my head.  When I listen to a song, that work is done for me.  With my brain freed from the task of composing and playing, it can devote more energy, more focus on the words, on the experience, on the emotion.

Does that make poems better, or greater than songs?  Why does no one say “the song was alright, but the poem was better.”  Like books and movies, I prefer to think of poems and songs as separate, but equal.  Sometimes I need to just drown myself in an emotion, and very few things come close to a well-chosen song for this.  Other times I want to explore the topic, create the world myself, and not be stuck to someone else’s vision.  And that means sitting down with some words on a page.

This post was written in response to the Daily Post’s Weekly Challenge.

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