Why You Should Read a Poem

Dear Miss Snark,

It's so funny that you brought up Emily Dickinson. My sister emailed me Friday morning, commenting that on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" show, they had claimed that ALL of Dickinson's poems could be sung to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas."

A little bit indignant, I immediately countered with, "Nuh uh, you can't sing 'I'm Nobody' to that tune; it doesn't fit."

My sister called me and felt that I was taking it a little too seriously (and personally), and I replied, "I'm sorry. But don't you be messin' with Emily Dickinson. I'm just sayin'. Is all."

Pick on Robert Browning all you want (if you can), rant about Al Purdy and Bukowski and all the Beat poets, spend weeks trying to shred anything that e e cummings didn't punctuate, but leave the Belle of Amherst alone.

Some things are best left unsullied, dagnabbit. ;)

A few years ago, when a certain quiz show was popular on TV, she called me to ask me if I knew the answer to a poetry question, and not only did I know the answer, I could quote the poem. That was the first time I realized my own sister -- a certified genius -- didn't have a clue who Sylvia Plath was or why her work was so important to so many people. Dear sister just hasn't been exposed to this stuff (she was a math major).

*Most* people haven't been exposed to this stuff. When my high school class was organizing its 20th reunion, a Yahoogroup was bursting with clever emails and posts. They started trying to outwit each other with clever haiku. But that seemed to be the only poetic form they knew. I introduced them to acrostics, limericks, and sonnets. Sonnets, for crying out loud. (OK, a couple of my old classmates were masters of hilarious blank verse, but they were not the norm.)

A few weeks ago, I went to a convenience store in a neighboring town (because my rural town has no 24-hour emporium of any kind), and the clerk at the counter asked me to help her with an essay that she was writing for her GED classes. English is her second language. Her biggest problem in the essay was vocabulary -- she hadn't been acquainted with the word "attain," for example, although she knew the words "obtain" and "contain." I asked her if she had a thesaurus, the single most useful tool in a writer's arsenal, and she said no, so I dug up a spare dog-eared Roget's for her. Then I asked her if, in her GED classes, she was reading ANY poetry. The answer again was no.

All I can think is, how can anyone expect to know and adequately manipulate a language if they are never, ever exposed to the best examples of it?

I took her a dog-eared copy of Norton's Anthology of Poetry. I had to go to a used book store for that, because you couldn't pry my college-days copy from my cold, dead fingers.

I guess what I'm saying -- nearly incoherently -- is that I love the poetry you've posted lately. I love that you advised the Snarkling to read Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson. I would probably just tell him/her to get a Norton's Anthology for a good dose of Blake and Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, too, but you really can't go wrong with Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson. You are one smart & tasteful Miss Snark.

But of course, you must surely already know that.

(Well, I know Grandmother Snark loves me but I still like to hear her say it; thank you!)


Problem Child said...

We used to sing Emily D to the tune of the theme to "Gilligan's Island."

Some poems are harder than others, but still fun to try. And it really makes my students WANT to read the poems...Anything that gets them to read poetry is okay with me.

qwyavk said...

I just learned recently that you can sing Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the tune of Gilligan's Island...that was a really happy day.

Miss Snark said...

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin ;
The guests are met, the feast is set :
May'st hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,
`There was a ship,' quoth he.
`Hold off ! unhand me, grey-beard loon !'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

oh dear dog, so you can.
I fear that rhythm section is the oncoming Four Horsemen.

nbm said...

Ballad meter, my darlings. Four, three, four, three. That's why it works.

I saw the new moon late yestreen
Wi' the old moon in her arms,
And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we'll come to harm.

(from the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, who never got to be an Ancient Mariner because his ship sank half oe'r, half oer to Aberdour where 'tis fifty fathom deep, which seems like even a worse fate than being shipwrecked in Tampa Bay or whatever for several seasons and interminable reruns)

overdog said...

I once had an acting teacher who had us act out Dickinson poems in class.

McKoala said...

Hands off Robert Browning!

PVish said...

You can also sing most of Emily D's works to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." (And during my earlier incarnation as a middle school teacher, I was known to rap Frost's "The Road Not Taken.")

Emma said...

My Norton is one of my most treasured books, and not just because the 4th edition cost a bundle. (Yeah yeah, I'm fresh out of uni, it's not an old tatty copy yet...)

I was introduced to sonnets and ee cummings and Plath and Blake back in high school. There are plenty of poetry nerds out there, eh? I just happen to be lucky enough to have been able to selfishly study the stuff for three whole years.

I think I am going up,
I think I may rise--
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene

*happy sigh*

Charity said...

I had a Russian professor who said you truly mastered a language when you understood both its jokes and its poetry. The Russians can do some serious poetry. Pushkin, anyone?

Ray Goldensundrop said...

Putting poetry to music is called writing lyrics.

That poetry has rhythm is part of the definition.

Frankly, I like lyrics better than straight poetry spoken with breathy sincerity. Most people agree.

From the Nissan commercial, "Every day is a winding road -- I get a little bit closer . . ." (Sheryl Crow)

Doesn't work without the congas, timbale and what might be electric guitar synth opening.

Anyway, music and poetry are almost the same thing. Why take offense when someone notices?

Would it be better if the poem in question were to be set to Miles Davis? Maybe so. Then that becomes song writing, getting the right tune with the working poetry, and vice versa. I'm thinking America the Beautiful and Star Spangled Banner, since it is 7/4 this morning. Both started out as poems.

Anonymous said...

Context, folks, context.

In ye good olde days, words and music for hymns were separate. There were various metric forms, and words were written to fit them, and tunes were written to fit them, and it was mix and match, with maybe a few suggested tunes for a particular set of words. In old hymnals (early 19th century and before), the tunes have their own separate names, unrelated to any particular lyrics, and any Common Meter lyrics can be sung to any Common Meter tune, and so forth with each metric form.

By noticing that different words can be sung to different tunes, we're just rediscovering what our great great great grandparents and their ancestors had designed.

The lyrics of hymns of course were part of the larger collection of literature, and the few standard metric forms were used not only for hymns but for all kinds of ballads, poetry, etc. So the Yellow Rose of Texas and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner are following in a long tradition of a few common metric forms. And Gilligan's Island, of course, is *supposed* to be a mock ballad, so it naturally follows a traditional form.

One can dig deep into the reasons Emily Dickinson chose a typical hymn meter for her work, but it hardly sullies her work to point out she did so. For example, it works as a nice metaphor for her life: She confined herself to a restricted, conventional, safe format, to express unique and startling ideas.

Anonymous said...

As if I didn't already love that poem enough... now I can sing it to Gilligan's Island. (And most likely will, all day long.)

I learn the best and funniest stuff from your blog, Miss Snark. rock on.


Anonymous said...

...And of course my favorite college drinking game...

You can sing the lyrics of Amazing Grace to virtually any syndicated T.V. show theme originally produced between 1967 and 1975.

Hawaii 5-0
Brady Bunch
Mission Impossible

It's scary.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I'm one of those deficient people when it comes to poetry. I was forced to study it in grade school and high school, and to this day nearly everyone of them goes over my head. All I hear is dada dada dadada da. Songs are different, I get some of them and love many from the old song books, like Carmichael, Kern, Gershwin, etc.


There are the rare exceptions. One that really stirred me was 'The Lament for Sion' by the fifteenth century Welsh poet Lewys Glyn Cothi. Here's the URL if anyone is interested: http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/1152.html

archer said...

ALL of Dickinson's poems could be sung to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas."

Well, "The Raven" can be sung more or less to the tune of "If I Only Had A Brain." (It also works with Dvorak's "Humoresque," known in the Midwest as "Footprints on the Dashboard Upside Down.")

poe-tic said...

A few years ago, I read an academic paper (included in a "Best Student Essays" anthology, no less) that argued Emily Dickinson's poetry was about domestic violence. I think this rather vividly illustrates the failings of some of our university systems.

My mother had us reading all kinds of poetry, from "Annabel Lee" to "Hiawatha," by the time we were eight years old. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it really enriched my life. I still love poetry though, sadly, don't read much of it anymore.

Maybe it is time to take that dusty Norton anthology down from the shelf and indulge again.

Xopher said...

You certainly can sing "I'm Nobody" to "The Yellow Rose of Texas"!!! I have done so.

I'm not claiming it sounds good, but then nothing sounds good sung to that tune, including "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Nelly said...

It's okay to rant about Bukowski? Why is it that people feel poetry must reproduce that flowery style over and over to be sacred poetry.

Emily Dickinson was too traditional for my tastes, and granted, it was to be expected for those of her time.

But I like poets that take risks.

It's like Bukowski said,

"Careful people and careful poetry live long enough to die safely."