Words cupped in our hearts

The Guardian - - OPINION -

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.

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 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. 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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