The Guardian view on music and poetry: growing up together – The Guardian

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.

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