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  • Writer's pictureMichael Simms

Rhythm Benders | The Musicality of American Poetry

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

A poem is rooted in the rhythms of pulse, breath and movement.

Why some patterns of sounds are more pleasing than others is a mystery, yet people generally agree on whether a series of sounds has musicality. Awareness of rhythm and melody play a role, but distinguishing music from noise appears to be an intuitive, perhaps even instinctual, ability. For example, everyone can agree, I think, that a song sparrow’s call is musical whereas a crow’s is not, but relatively few of us can explain why this is so. To a certain degree, a pleasing context or personal association may influence our judgement. The sound of ocean waves gently hitting the shore or the sound of the wind in the treetops may be thought to be musical, but the recognition of musicality goes beyond the synesthetic context; rather it is inherent in the pattern of sound itself. Here, I’d like to extend this principle of our innate sense of musicality to include poetry and argue that we have a response to the music of language which is innate, rooted in the rhythms of the human body, and which lies at the heart of the artistic use of language.

In the last hundred years, Americans’ sense of the musicality of language has been muddled by a tug of war between the poets of authenticity, who try to create art out of the day-to-day language of their neighbors, and the poets of experimentation who push at the limits of language and see authenticity as merely a conjuror’s trick that encourages listeners to hold fast to their cultural prejudices. Having inherited these dueling traditions of “Art is an imitation of life” versus “Anything can be art,” contemporary poets need broad definitions of “poetry” and “music” in order to explore the ways the two art forms are similar and in this way determine an aesthetic of the musicality of poetry. These definitions promise to be useful even to those who decide to reject them… [click here to continue reading the essay in PLUME POETRY)

oil on canvas painting of three human figures
Man Ray, Departure of Summer, 1916, oil, canvas


Copyright 2023 Michael Simms

Michael Simms is the founding editor of Vox Populi. His latest books are a collection of poetry Strange Meadowlark (Ragged Sky, 2023) and a fantasy novel The Green Mage (Madville, 2023).

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