Where Did the Poetry Go?

Back in 2003 I posted a very funny Charles Simic quote which I got from the long-defunct blog Giornale Nuovo (and I always feel a pang when I think about those blogs that inspired me in my early days of blogging); just now, providing archived links for that post, I liked what misteraitch had to say so much I thought I’d repost it here (minus the bulk of the list of poets he owned, for which visit this link, and the Simic, for which see my first link):

Where Did the Poetry Go?

Right poetry is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness. – Sir Philip Sidney.

At one time or another I’ve owned books of poetry by Anna Akhmatova, Charles Baudelaire, John Berryman, […] and W.B Yeats. Plus others I’ve doubtless forgotten, not counting numerous anthologies, virtually all of which I’ve read and more or less enjoyed, some of which I’ve loved and treasured, and a couple of dozen of which have survived my several changes of taste, circumstance, and address, and are still on my shelves today. The sorry fact of it is though, that I seldom read poetry any more.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. – William Wordsworth.

I never try to write poetry any more either. For years I strove, in hour after hour of frustrated creative endeavour, to distil a few shining lines of the stuff. The worthwhile results of this work, alas, would scarcely fill both sides of a single sheet of A4, let alone a slim volume of verse. Yet it was not dissatisfaction with the quality of my efforts that brought them, very gradually, to a standstill, rather some ebbing away of my desire to partake of poetry’s essence – a loss of appetite, perhaps.

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty. – Edgar Allan Poe.

I spent the larger part of my first proper pay-cheque on poetry-books, which seemed to me at that time a more urgent necessity than buying myself one good pair of shoes. These days, I must concede, my priorities have reversed, and the shoes would come first.

Writing a poem… is reaching out into the unexplained areas of the mind, in which the air is too thickly primitive or too fine for us to live continually – Thom Gunn.

So, I wonder, where did the poetry in me go? Did it evaporate away with my youth like some volatile spirit, never to return? Is it in abeyance, a Muse in sullen exile? Or has it merely cooled and congealed into prose?

All of this applies to me as well — in my mid-twenties I was obsessed with poetry, writing it every day (some of which I still think is not bad) and reading it far more than the linguistics books and articles I was meant to be reading for my never-finished dissertation. And of course it’s not just me and misteraitch — that progression, or evaporation, is familiar enough to be a cliché. Is lyric poetry really just an attempt to get laid?


  1. A. E. Housman: “it is the function of poetry to harmonize the sadness of the world.” He apparently left that task early and instead edited boring Manilius.
    Some old timers didn’t quit: e.g., Auden

  2. Yeah, obviously for some it’s a life’s work and passion. I wonder what makes the difference?

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Is lyric poetry really just an attempt to get laid?

    Maybe for extroverts. For introverts it’s a substitute.

    My own standards are pretty high, as the man said: “Poetry must be as well written as prose”.

    I don’t read prose because it’s prosaic, why would I want to read poetry because it’s poetic ?

  4. cuchuflete says

    The line separating poetry from prose is sometimes wavy, even invisible.
    Over half a century ago I found Dylan Thomas’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”,
    and that slim volume of short stories held these words: ‘seated by his side was a thin, bald, pale old man with his cheeks in his mouth’.

    About the same time I read some poems by Miguel de Unamuno, as prosaic as they were forgettable.

  5. In general, I don’t have a feeling for poetry (although I suppose that’s because I don’t think in language in general), but I have a good feeling _of_ prose. Although I do like Keats, who apparently had an affinity towards poetry.

  6. John Cowan says

    I needed to check wording in “Alice’s Restaurant” earlier, and the first thing Google found was what began as a straight rendering of it until some niddy-noddy carefully capitalized each physical line of the prose, thus:

    This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the
    Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant,
    That’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song Alice’s

  7. cuchuflete: “The line separating poetry from prose is sometimes wavy, even invisible.”

    It seems to be to be like that to me, also.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    “I never pay attention to poetry anymore,” says the man who had just blogged about a poem in Kazakh.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Ofelia de Dinamarca (M. de Unamuno)
    Rosa de nube de carne
    Ofelia de Dinamarca,
    tu mirada, sueñe o duerma,
    es de Esfinge la mirada.
    En el azul del abismo
    de tus niñas?  todo o nada,
    ¡ser o no ser!, ¿es espuma
    o poso de vida tu alma?
    No te vayas monja, espérame
    cantando viejas baladas,
    suéñame mientras te sueño,
    brízame la hora que falta.
    Y si los sueños se esfuman
    ¿el resto es silencio ?, almohada
    hazme de tus muslos, virgen
    Ofelia de Dinamarca.

    It’s not that bad…

  10. @John Cowan: The lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant” can vary a lot from performance to performance, depending on what kind of mood Arlo was in at the time, apparently. Heck, the name of the song, as explained in the song, isn’t even the name of the song on the album track list (where it’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”)!

  11. These days, I must concede, my priorities have reversed, and the shoes would come first.

    Mikhail Zoshchenko. Preface to Before sunrise. (transl. DeepL)

    I conceived this book a long time ago. Right after I published my Youth Restored.

    For almost ten years I have collected materials for this new book. And I waited for a quiet year to get down to work in the quiet of my office.

    But that didn’t happen.

    On the contrary. German bombs fell twice near my materials. The briefcase containing my manuscripts was covered with lime and bricks. The flames were licking them already. And I am amazed how it happened that they survived.

    The collected material flew with me on a plane across the German frontline from besieged Leningrad.

    I took twenty heavy notebooks with me. To reduce their weight, I tore off the linen bindings. And yet, they weighed about eight kilograms of the twelve kilograms of luggage taken by the plane. And there was a moment when I bemoaned the fact that I had taken this junk instead of warm underpants and an extra pair of boots.

    However, my love of literature prevailed. I reconciled myself to my miserable fate.

    (Russian text)

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve long since internalised my favourite poetry. I don’t actually need to read it much, because I know it.

    I suppose that leaves the question of newer poetry; I suspect the issue there is not altogether unlike the question of why I don’t really appreciate rap music (no matter how good it may be objectively.) My brain is less malleable …

    (Also, the newer poetry is just not as good. Grumble, grumble, young poets of today, mumble …)

  13. It’s been a while since I saw any spoken word poetry, but I got to say, it’s categorically wonderful. The emphasis is on performance, as opposed to words on a page, but it’s made of the same stuff. Dig?

  14. John Emerson says

    I tend to combine poetry reading with language study, so the poems I read are rarely in English. And I can’t read poetry casually., except rereading favorites. Basically I need to be grabbed by a new poet and have enough time to spend a week on them. The opposite of a timekiller which you do when you don’t have the energy to do anything else.

    I haven’t tried to write a poem since about 1980, though I’ve done a number
    of translations.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. – William Wordsworth.

    …. misses out the vital second half of the sentence “… it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
    (As cited, it reduces Wordsworth’s saying to evident nonsense; frankly, I wonder how anybody with any real appreciation of poetry could miss out that second part.)

    Even so, this does not apply to all poetry, nor to all great poetry – unless you arbitrarily declare that it isn’t really poetry if it doesn’t fit this definition. No true Scotsman …

  16. Writers' Order says

    Poetry hasn’t gone anywhere. It has just evolved…

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    There was I, thinking it had been wiped out by that asteroid strike …

  18. Birds are actually poets!

  19. I wonder. Given your last line, was poetry ever in you at all? I’m just finishing a book of 600 sonnets, writing one a week for the last 10 years.

  20. Wow! You’re right, you’re the only true poet, and possibly the greatest poet of the 21st century. Keep it up — keep writing those sonnets — and you may work your way up to Greatest Poet of all Times and Nations!

  21. Rhyming “uncanny” and “epiphany” is a masterful touch, I must say.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I note that Simic’s rather reductionist suspicion about the makers of lyric poetry is specific to lyric poetry, and thus presumably exempts epic poetry, which in olden times was thought so distinct a genre as to warrant a separate Muse.* But would-be makers of epic poetry are rather thin on the ground these days.

    *the lyric-poetry Muse was of course Erato, whose name may be etymologically connected to Eros. Infer from that what you will.

  23. John Cowan says

    Heck, the name of the song, as explained in the song

    “The song really is “A-Sitting On A Gate”, says the White Knight.

    I don’t read prose because it’s prosaic, why would I want to read poetry because it’s poetic ?

    Ah yes, the “antique snobbery about the superiority of verse” that gives us not only prosaic but also prosy.

    I wonder how anybody with any real appreciation of poetry could miss out that second part.

    Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I knew only the second part.

  24. “The line separating poetry from prose is sometimes wavy, even invisible.”

    Linguists, being dull and unromantic creatures (well, at least some are), sometimes define poetry as speech that is formally organized into ‘lines’ (not necessary written lines, obviously). This has the downside of not lending itself to flowery statements about the ineffability of poetry, and you probably won’t get many shares on social media even if you put that definition in front a picture of a pretty landscape. But it does have the upside of letting bad poetry be poetry (even Orrm), and letting good prose stay prose.

    (Metre is a further thing, the organization of language within the line. Not all poetry has metre.)

  25. Do all languages have poetry, by that definition? I would expect that all languages have formal artistic modes, with extra rules, but the polysynthetic ones might have words that are so long it’s impossible to organize them into lines.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    On the one hand, saying poetry doesn’t require meter seems suspect if it is only intended to permit very recent Western “free verse” to count. On the other hand, I take it that western notions of meter (whether stress-based or quantitative) don’t fit very well as applied to e.g. traditional Japanese poetry, where the form may be just (to use the most famous example) five morae then seven morae then five morae now stop. I take it the nature of Japanese is (or has been at various historical periods) such that there isn’t a sort of sufficiently basic contrast available between fundamental types-of-morae akin to long-versus-short syllables or stressed-versus-unstressed syllables that you can use to build a metrical sort of pattern out of? So either you redefine “meter” to include “have your line be X morae long” or you accept that some languages have non-metrical poetry. (Coming to Japanese from an Anglophone background you tend to think of certain two-mora combinations as “long syllables” with other morae being freestanding “short syllables,” but I take it that’s not an analysis that may have seemed natural to Japanese poets historically)

  27. You can certainly have poetry in polysynthetic languages. There is poetry in Nahuatl and Ainu, certainly, and I expect in many other languages usually considered polysynthetic. I’m not sure quite why this should be unexpected — you’ll end up with fewer ‘words’ per line than is the average in, say, English, but why should that matter?

    For what it’s worth, this definition is given more or less explicitly by Fabb & Halle, ‘Meter in Poetry’, page 1:

    “Poetry is a form of verbal art that has been found in all languages and in all times. Most, perhaps all human societies put their language to the special use of composing poetry. What distinguishes all poetry from prose is that poetry is made up of lines (verses). Syllables, words, phrases, clauses and sentences are found in both prose and poetry, but only poetry has lines. It is the organization of the text into lines that defines poetry in all languages and literary traditions.

    “Poetry is, of course, not produced simply by segmenting a prose passage into arbitrary sequences of words or syllables and calling these lines. For a sequence of syllables or words to count as poetry it must satisfy a set of conditions which differ for different kinds of poetry. In metrical poetry, which is the subject of this book, lines must satisfy requirements on length and on the location in the line of marked syllables, and different conditions are met by different kinds of non-metrical poetry.”

    I think they’ve phrased some parts of that rather badly, but the basic idea they’re driving at seems sound, and isn’t obviously inapplicable to any poetry tradition I’m familiar with. I suppose the main weak point is the issue of how adequately we can define ‘line’ in a way that covers all non-metrical poetry. F&H cover Biblical Hebrew verse and Free Verse, but don’t try and go beyond that (their book is on metre, after all). I think the idea that there are usually tradition-specific ways of fairly clearly defining ‘lines’ in non-metrical poetry probably would hold up, but maybe there are places where trying to look at things this way just breaks down or at least isn’t helpful.

  28. Surely Japanese poetry is straightforwardly metrical, by any reasonable definition of ‘metre’ with a prayer of cross-linguistic applicability. Classical forms regulate moras, with much less care for syllables than European metres tend to show, but that’s not a problem.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    @Nelson Goering – perhaps this is simply my sheer ignorance showing, but how does traditional Japanese poetry satisfy the “and on the location in the line of marked syllables” criterion from the proposed definition you quote, even if it is rephrased to read “marked morae”? Separately, I’m not sure how traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry of the “a line has four stressed syllables, with a break between the second and third, but can have pretty much any number of additional unstressed syllables” variety fits their definition. It may depend in part on what they mean by “length” of line as a requirement. Certainly the definition ought to manage to accommodate “stunt” metrical poems like “Easter Wings” where the length of line itself keeps varying from line to line albeit in a patterned way within the stanza. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44361/easter-wings

  30. January First-of-May says

    I suppose the main weak point is the issue of how adequately we can define ‘line’ in a way that covers all non-metrical poetry.

    AFAIK the Lay of Igor’s Campaign is usually considered poetry, and printed as such, but the division into lines is very uncertain in places. Most of it isn’t very metrical.

  31. Yeah, that’s a complicated edge case. And who knows if we have it in its original form?

  32. I’m not sure F&H’s theory, taken as a whole, actually demands that a metre have any ‘marked syllables’, just that a metre should regulate any that are there (what I think they mean, even if they’re saying it kind of badly, is that things like stress patterns or tones can be regulated by metres, if those get specified as being marked from a metrical perspective).

    That said, I do think their approach is a bit too syllable-centric in general, and that’s one of the many points of phrasing in their definition I find a bit irritating, even if they’re expressing a useful general insight despite it all. I’d personally think of metre as simply the regulation of linguistic material within the line, employing patterning of syllables, moras, feet, words, stresses, tones, or whatever else is relevant, as determined by the language and poetic tradition in question.

    Old English metre is one of my main interests, and the idea that its about four stressed syllables in a line is demonstrably just wrong. From a metrical standpoint, the relevant unit is rather the half-line or verse, whose descriptive regulation is very well understood (it most definitely does not allow ‘any number’ of unstressed syllables as a general statement, though in certain parts of certain types of verses the exact number of unstressed syllables can vary a fair amount). Exactly what rules explain these distributions is another and much-debated matter. The two most popular and plausible are either that it has a four-syllable-per-verse basis, with various options for expanding the number of syllables (in regulated ways), or that it is really a word-based metre, not syllable-based. It’s a hard metre to explain, but it’s definitely a metre, with many regulations not found in prose.

    The Lay of Igor’s Campaign would seem to be a good candidate for non-metrical poetry, if that’s the case. Or depending on whether it is trying to hold to a metre in parts, maybe it’s variably metrical and non-metrical, within the same poem? I’m not sure why such a thing shouldn’t be able to exist.

    In Old English, the so-called ‘rhythmical prose’ of Ælfric has been the subject of endless exasperating discussions, mainly because it does fall out nicely into lines (with some uncertainties at a few points), but doesn’t have any obvious metre. What I like about the F&H approach is that, despite their bad phrasing and perhaps not quite right emphases, they get at an insight that, at least for that kind of material, makes things very straightforward: it’s non-metrical poetry.

  33. maybe it’s variably metrical and non-metrical, within the same poem

    Either that or it’s a mix of rhythmical prose and poetry. I think we’d have to know a lot more than we do (or can) about the literary-poetic context of its time to judge.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    I am happy to defer to Nelson Goering’s charitable reading of F&M’s theory, which they may not themselves have expressed optimally, and in general am in favor of an account of meter that can cover a wide range of different phenomena and patterns, given the variousness of languages and their associated societies’ poetic traditions. Of course, the broader the definition of “meter” the rarer truly non-metrical poetry will be, at least in terms of the number of language communities that will completely lack metrical poetry as opposed to the possibility that any given text in a given community may be an edge case in terms of whether or not it’s metrical.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Interesting things happen when language change destroys the basis of a system of poetry. The lengthening of stressed open syllables made the Middle High German meters completely incomprehensible, and for 300 years all German poetry had to offer was doggerel.

    A system of vowel length had broken down not long before, or perhaps during, Igor’s campaign, so maybe composing the song about it was similarly challenging.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    when language change destroys the basis of a system of poetry

    This could have happened in Welsh, when the stress in polysyllables moved back from the last to the penultimate syllable, if someone had not had the bright idea of turning a bug into a feature by requiring couplets to rhyme a stressed with an unstressed syllable.


  37. cuchuflete says

    Is E. E. Cummings’s writing a poem?
    Is it line based?
    An edge case?


  38. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps Cummings was an edge-case specialist. He would sometimes knock out a stanza in which (peculiarities of orthography and diction aside) three out of four lines are metrical in a boringly-conventional way but the fourth is a seemingly unmetrical puzzler, e.g. (3d line is the wildcard here):

    what freedom’s not some under’s mere above
    but breathing yes which fear will never no?
    measureless our pure living complete love
    whose doom is beauty and its fate to grow

  39. That’s also what probably happened between Old and Middle Bulgarian, but is extremely hard to reconstruct.

  40. David Marjanović says

    to rhyme a stressed with an unstressed syllable

    Amazing. (The Welsh article leads to impressive examples.) Wasn’t an option in German, of course, because by that point the unstressed syllables were mostly too reduced to rhyme with anything stressed, as starkly demonstrated in mockery:

    Ich bin ein Fußballer,
    das Leben fällt mir schwer,
    das Denken noch viel mehr!
    Ich bin ein Fußballer.

  41. As in,

    I am an antichrist
    and I am an anarchist


    Conductor, when you receive a fare,
    Punch in the presence of the passenjare

  42. You don’t read poetry. You don’t write poetry. You make fun of rhymes (you could have picked any one of a thousand, because rhymes are fair game — though there’s no such thing as a right rhyme or a wrong rhyme). And you confuse a devotion to the art form with an obsession. Wordsworth wrote 532 sonnets. What’s your point, other than to be snide? I challenged you on your faithlessness, and you respond with derision. Not particularly gentlemanly. If you don’t like poetry, why bother to write at some length that you don’t; if you don’t write poetry, why should we care? The fact you read enough of my sonnets to dig out a rhyme you could ridicule proves you have no business even writing about poetry. Poetry is not for everyone. It’s certain not for a nobody, like you.

  43. Ever get the feeling a complete stranger is banging on your door, demanding a duel?

  44. Seriously though, Hat, just a few years ago I learned to appreciate Mandelshtam through your enthusiastiasm, right here. Isn’t that a counterexample?

  45. For heaven’s sake, I didn’t say I never read poetry any more, I said that the progression described by misteraitch also applies to me. (And I suspect he was exaggerating his own disaffection for effect.) Of course I read poetry — there are times when I read lots of it (see my series of posts on Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva, inter alia). It simply isn’t central to my life as it was decades ago; I read it, but not with the same compulsion, and I haven’t written it for years (other than as translations of Russian poets). But I can still tell a hawk from a handsaw, and a poetaster from a poet.

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    And of course both hat and misteraitch were riffing on the rather skeptical/reductionist account of the lyric poet’s motives given by Simic, who apparently himself is still producing poetry and thus has yet to grow up enough to move past those motives despite being in his eighties.

  47. Quite.

  48. As it happens “Alice’s Restaurant” was on the radio here yesterday, and the announcer said he got curious about the word “Massacree”, and researched it. He said it is a term used in the Ozarks, meaning a complicated narrative that rambles on for a long time without making a point or coming to any conclusion.

  49. Christopher Guerin says

    I’m sorry I lost my temper. Getting cranky as the years pass. You’re clearly not a nobody, as your following indicates. At any rate, feel free to delete my intemperate comments. Peace.

  50. Stu Clayton says

    Getting cranky as the years pass.

    Welcome to the club ! Unfortunately there’s no merch on offer here, but I myself would like a real Cane of Impotence to shake at young’uns.

  51. jack morava says

    I hesitate to go there but feel someone should. It seems to me that rap is conceivably poetry, but I know almost nothing about it.

  52. Welcome to the club !

    Seconded! See my sidebar warning: “I have strong opinions and sometimes express myself more sharply than an ideal interlocutor might…” I keep a cane around to wave when I feel the need to express my crankiness out loud at home. No worries!

    It seems to me that rap is conceivably poetry, but I know almost nothing about it.

    I’ve felt strongly ever since I was first exposed to it (when I moved to NYC in 1981) that rap is indeed poetry, far more so than the “poetic” lyrics to pop and rock songs, which need their music to work at all (I’m talkin’ to you, Mister Big Shot Nobel Dylan Man). Others disagree, and there’s no way to prove it either way, but such are the feelings of this lover of both poetry and music.

  53. January First-of-May says

    The fact you read enough of my sonnets to dig out a rhyme you could ridicule proves you have no business even writing about poetry.

    For what it’s worth, the specific rhyme quoted is literally in the very first sonnet given at the link in the original comment, and is the second rhyme in that sonnet, so digging it out would not have required reading more than four lines.

    (No offence intended to any actual verse. Writing passable work in quantity is its own skill.)

  54. Trond Engen says

    I think rap is the closest modern (Western) equivalent to the metric poetry of yore.

  55. jack morava says

    It might be useful if someone familiar with the genre could recommend some interesting examples of rap or rap criticism for those who are curious.

  56. Christopher Guerin says

    I’m not a fan of rap, but I think there’s a case to be made that some of it’s poetry. Coming from a music background, though, I’d have my arm broken and put in a bad cast before I’d even consider that most rap is music.

  57. It might be useful if someone familiar with the genre could recommend some interesting examples of rap or rap criticism for those who are curious.

    This might be a place to start. (I personally am very fond of De La Soul and have several of their records.)

  58. David Marjanović says

    I think rap is the closest modern (Western) equivalent to the metric poetry of yore.

    I’ve been wondering about that for a while.

  59. Your original question — are would-be poets just trying to get laid — reminds me of this old Barsotti cartoon.

  60. That’s a good one.

  61. David Marjanović says

    Can you link directly to the image file? I get another image – which says whatever business that is no longer does business outside the US.

  62. Does this work?

  63. (Borrowing the Old Man’s Shaking Cane.) Everything Top 40 is awful, of every genre, but that’s what most people are exposed to. That includes Top 40 rap. (Returns cane.)

    De La Soul are wonderful, lyrically and musically. I think it’s a good first pick to try to change someone’s mind about the genre.

  64. Here is a recent reconstruction of what the original text of the Слово о полку Игореве might have looked like. There is also a long chapter on meter.

  65. If anyone has access to the Dictionary of American Regional English, I’d be curious to see what it says about “massacree”.

  66. Me too. (HDAS has only “a massacre; (sports) a humiliating defeat.”)

  67. John Emerson says

    When I first started reading Chinese poetry in Chinese, after reading hundreds of Chinese poems in free verse translation, I was shocked to see how neat and tidy they were. Four-stanza poems with four four-syllable lines per stanza, while rare, were not impossible, and most shi poems are almost that neat.

  68. I’m not a fan of rap, but I think there’s a case to be made that some of it’s poetry. Coming from a music background, though, I’d have my arm broken and put in a bad cast before I’d even consider that most rap is music.

    what do you think it is then, if not music?

  69. David Marjanović says

    Does this work?

    Yes, thanks! 🙂

    Here is a recent reconstruction

    And such a small file, too!

    Hypothesis 3 proposed in the chapter on the meter (p. 67) is that ъ & ь in weak positions behaved like the e caduc of French poetry, meaning they were pronounced or not based on “phonological, metrical and euphonic” considerations. That sounds plausible for its age. Nonetheless, the number of syllables per line is not regulated. Some passages stress every second syllable, others every third – it’s really the number of stress-based feet per line that isn’t regulated; the number of syllables per foot is! Unstressed syllables in the middle of a line can drop out if an open word-final syllable precedes them, so maybe that syllable was lengthened instead of a pause; there are rare cases of stressed syllables dropping out the same way – to me this looks like the composer had a tune in mind. There is no syllable weight, so my hypothesis above falls flat. Phonological stress is mostly respected; at first glance the exceptions look to me again like a tune could explain them. And these meters are also found in various chronicles, and, as far as I understand, in much younger ballads. (I’m operating at the limit of my vocabulary here.)

    Also, синее вино – sea-dark wine, basically.

  70. Is “no rhyme or reason” style of poetry is now a common European-language thing? Or only English? AFAIK, even now it is possible to write a poem in Russian with all the formal features in place and it won’t be derided just for that.

  71. Isn’t this just called free verse or verse libre? It’s been around for at least a century

  72. Lars Mathiesen says

    Free verse is sometimes called knækprosa in Danish. Prose with extra linebreaks. (Less meanly prosadigte). I think poesi in Danish has a more “refined” connotation than poetry does in English, so free verse doesn’t count.

  73. AFAIK, even now it is possible to write a poem in Russian with all the formal features in place and it won’t be derided just for that.

    You’ve got it backwards — in Russian, the expectation is still that a poem will have all the formal features, though the lack of them is no longer cause for instant rejection. There are quite a few young poets working in other ways, without rhyme or meter, but most poetry is still written in traditional stanza forms.

  74. Christopher Guerin says

    Most rap is rhythmic rhyming. Rhythm alone or with words isn’t music. Music requires notes, tones, melody, chords, harmonies. The constant repetition of one note behind rap might seem to some like music, but not to me. Now some rap is backed with these things, which is why I said “most” is not music. But, clearly the rapper’s purpose has always been rhythming speech laden with rhymes, not making music. The words are what matter in rap. In music what matters is the elements of music mentioned above.

  75. jack morava says

    @Christopher G,

    this seems sensible but it suggests the question of whether rhythm alone can be regarded as music, which tablaists for example might argue. My naive impression is that the rhythm in rap can be nontrivially complex but I really don’t know anything about it.

  76. I am not a big rap fan, but there is a lot of “speaking on pitch” in hip-hop, and it’s not so different than spoken songs in other genres. Compare Melle Mel in “The Message” to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

  77. PlasticPaddy says

    Presumably what steel bands make is not music for you. But some people dance to it 😊.

  78. Christopher Guerin says

    I take your point. I suppose a drum solo is music, but in most cases they are complex. Tabla solos, the same, but in both cases they are part of a musical composition, an interlude. Rap is intent, first and foremost on words and rhyme and rhythm. That they sometimes have instrumental accompaniment is incidental. Take a Prince song with a rap interlude, full of melody and instrumentation. But when the rap starts the effect is to halt the music for the sake of the rap, which only begins again when the rap stops. I admit this is all not universally held, but after a lifetime of listening to everything from Gregorian chant to Lady Gaga, I know music from rap. (Btw, I ran a symphony orchestra for 20 years.) And none of this intends to suggest rap isn’t a valid artistic endeavor.

  79. That all makes sense, and I’m glad to see your last sentence — I see too many people using “rap isn’t music” to prove “rap isn’t a valid artistic endeavor” (“it’s just noise!”).

  80. jack morava says

    It just occurred to me that I have been confusing free verse with blank verse. It seems to me that if the latter is poetry, so must rap be as well, cf

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skipping-rope_rhyme ?

  81. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t find these “what is real X” squabbles particularly helpful, since they are more concerned with quiddities than practical use. For example, I take Christopher’s point that rap isn’t music, but an “artistic endeavor”. However, in a record store I would hope to find a “rap” section in the music department, as well as a “classical” section (but not an “artistic endeavor” section). The section signs should help to avoid certain things and home in on others.

    Similarly, when searching on Amazon, or in a bookstore, for books on mathematics there should be some way to steer past books by, or about, dippycrats like Lacan and Badiou (“Èloge des mathematiques”). Maybe it’s too much to expect that mere labels will take you to what you want, when you don’t know what you want. On the other hand, some people actually like French waffling.

  82. Stu Clayton says

    “Mathematical endeavors 😜” might be a good section sign for books by Lacan, Badiou et al.


  83. J.W. Brewer says

    I am still curious about whether rap lyrics are (characteristically or typically) metrical. Song lyrics in some genres (including “rock” and associated styles) are not infrequently non-metrical, in the sense that if you just recite them aloud w/o musical accompaniment in your conventional “reading poetry” voice they exhibit no rhythmic patterning that could be fairly called metrical. That’s because the way in which the singer fits the words to the flow of the music can involve multiple changes in speed, syllable length, insertion of pauses, etc that would individually and collectively be odd-sounding in ordinary speech (poetry-reciting or otherwise) and require a bunch of additional “stage directions” to cue successfully if written on the page.

    I think from this it maybe follows that the more “musical” rap vocalizing is, the easier it would be for it to successfully get away with being non-metrical.

    But there seems like an empirical question here that could be researched as to the metricality of rap lyrics considered in isolation. It’s in any event possible for a non-“musical” vocal part to be intentionally uttered over a musical background, and seems odd to claim that the resulting combination is “not music.” So for example, it might be fair and non-pejorative to label the style in which the late Prince Far I (+1983) recited psalms to reggae accompaniment as not itself “musical” – it’s not a normal speaking voice but it’s certainly consistent with a way one can imagine scripture being read aloud in a religious setting without musical accompaniment, but when it’s accompanied by music, what results is music, innit? (In this one he breaks into actual “song” a little bit at the very end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzHeitrO7Rw

  84. Stu Clayton says

    Sprechgesang in Wozzeck. “He sang it very beautifully that time.”

    Like that track by Prince Far I !

  85. That was extraordinarily interesting and makes me want to listen to Wozzeck again (haven’t heard it in years) — thanks!

  86. @J.W. Brewer: Yes, that Prince Far I is quite amazing.

    @Stu Clayton: Wozzeck isn’t an opera that I am particularly familiar with, and I don’t know what the traditional approach to it has been. However, it seemed to me that the tenor James Cleverton’s demonstration of the Sprechgesang was significantly more lyrical (that is, musical sounding) that I would have expected. I think I was influenced by many years of listening to the works of Alban Berg’s teacher Schoenberg (who was mentioned in the video). In particular, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder* has some parts that are very non-lyrical, yet which still manage to maintain a cadence of pitches; this section is an excellent example of speaking on pitch.

    * My father really likes listening to classical music, primarily on vinyl LPs, since that is what he spent decades collecting. He only bought a CD player in the mid-1990s, when it was becoming hard to find interesting new releases on LP. When it was clear that vinyl was on the way out, he bought the highest quality turntable and stereo receiver he could get, since he figured it would need to last him for the remaining decades of his life. When the Portland public radio station decided to go all-digital for their music programming, they sold off all their LPs, and my dad went to the sale and came back with a trunkful. Most of the albums were sold for fifty cents each, but there were a few that he paid more for—including the complete recordings of Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff (in eight or twelve volumes). He also picked up a second copy of Gurre-Lieder, of which he would play the rather spooky last (or three) record a few times around Halloween each year. Nevertheless, he is not really a fan of Schoenberg, and sometimes likes to mock the composer’s attempts to formalize twelve-tone music. I poked some fun at my father, in turn, for, in spite of his digs at Schoenberg, owning two complete copies of the same exact recording of Gurre-Lieder.

  87. Stu Clayton says

    @Brett: However, it seemed to me that the tenor James Cleverton’s demonstration of the Sprechgesang was significantly more lyrical (that is, musical sounding) that I would have expected.

    Yes, that was why I quoted the conductor as saying “He sang it very beautifully that time.” He did ask the singer to do so – I guess to demonstrate that he could do so.

    The delivery of German there is a bit labored and precious (a DZS* phenomenon), compared with
    this gutsy** performance in Vienna.

    *DZS = Deutsch als Zweitsprache.
    **gusty ?

  88. That Vienna performance video is from 1988 with Abbado conducting and Hildegard Behrens as Marie. However, the legend says it is from 2013, with Welser-Möst and Schwanewilms. Go figure.

  89. Stu Clayton says

    Metadata ain’t what it used to be.

  90. David Marjanović says

    *DZS = Deutsch als Zweitsprache.

    Huh. Never seen the abbreviation or Zweitsprache; it’s only ever Fremdsprache.

    (Can be differentiated to erste Fremdsprache, zweite Fremdsprache… “second language, third language”…)

  91. For speaking on pitch, there is also most of Lou Reed’s ouvre. I was just singing along with “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”, and my pronunciation was much more lyrical than Reed’s.

  92. J.W. Brewer says

    The Lou Reed oeuvre is varied. As it happens, we have a newborn baby in our house so I am once again (as I did with each of my four older children at the same age) using Lou’s perhaps atypically melodic/lyrical “I Found a Reason” as a lullaby. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvsF4FMdagQ

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