Articles for Teachers & Students

Harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers

by Edward Hirsch

The poem appeals to the ear. At one boundary we have the lyric as a poem dependent upon music for its full effectiveness. The word lyric derives from the Greek lyra, or “musical instrument.” The Greeks spoke of lyrics as ta mele, “poems to be sung.” The musical element is so intrinsic to poetry that the lyric never entirely forgets its origins in musical expression—in singing, chanting, recitation to musical accompaniment. The poet was once a performer, a bard, a scop, a troubadour. In the Renaissance the lyric was repeatedly associated with the lyre and the lute. Here is how Milton evokes the juncture of poetry and music in his poem “At a Solemn Musick”:

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,
Sphear-born, harmonious sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ

Of the nine celestial sirens assigned to the nine spheres of the universe, Milton is here specifying two—Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song, and Erato, the muse of lyric poetry—and calling upon them to join together. Before the eighteenth century, writers or critics seemed to make little or no apparent distinction between melodic lyrics, such as Campion’s ayres (“Whoever dreams of a poem where language begins to resemble music, thinks of him,” Charles Simic writes) or the songs of Shakespeare’s plays, and nonmusical written lyrics, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets or Donne’s love poems.

Yet it was during the Renaissance that English writers first began to write their lyrics for readers rather than composing them for musical performance. They began to shape their poems to a visual medium. The space for writing as writing, for the poem as something to be read, opened up, for a written poem, unlike an oral one, has a spatial dimension. It becomes a physical object on the page. It appeals to the inner ear, to unique experience. As the idea of the individual emerged during the Renaissance, so did the lyric poem take on fresh elements for expressing that newfound selfhood. The lyric became an instrument of greater inwardness. Later, that dimension of inwardness would start to feel like lyric poetry itself. And some poetry would start to aspire to the pure condition of music.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (8)

On September 11, 2007 at 8:53am natalie wrote:
it was very nice i loved it!

On November 16, 2008 at 4:01pm Chelsea wrote:
I am at a loss for words I do not like this article at all. Hirsch writes all his articles with strong description and knowledge but the redundancy is very annoying. I have fully come to realize his deep and loving compassion for lyric poems. I think by reading all the articles before this one I truly know how he is obsessed with only that poetry.

On November 16, 2008 at 9:28pm jordan Dodderer wrote:
I think the historical background is interesting. "Harmonious sisters" is very true. However, it may disappoint Kirsch to know, that when song and poem split...song wins everytime. I think if you polled the nation music lovers would greatly outweight the percentage of poetry lovers. Music can affect you even when you don't understand the lyrics. I could listen to a beautiful french song and fall in love, however, I read a german lyric poem and frankly...i care less. If these two sisters truly live harmoniously as one it isn't by equal balance. I think Hirsch's beloved poem has finally met it's "better" half.

On November 16, 2008 at 9:57pm Emily wrote:
Poems and songs are very much alike; this I agree with. However, I do not agree with the statement "...for a written poem, unlike an oral one, has a spatial dimension. It becomes a physical object on the page. It appeals to the inner ear, to unique experience." Is Hirsch trying to say that a poem cannot have this signifcance unless it is literally written? Can I not have the appeal in my inner ear from an oral poem? I believe that I can. Hirsch argues that not enough people hold poetry and music to be 'sisters', one of a kind, yet he later explains that the song cannot be as impresionable as a written poem. They are equally important. Most people enjoy one more than the other, that is their opinion. Hirsch's opinion choice is obviously poetry on paper. Mine is audible music. Neither of is better, nor can pull more meaning from our choice of art. They are equivalent in importance.

On November 16, 2008 at 10:17pm Candace :) wrote:
The best kind of poetry, in my opinion, is the poetry written in the form of a song. When the words are sung, the emotion is felt through the singer and the listener is able to truly connect with the thoughts and feelings the words are meant to bring. When words are only written down, these feelings meant to be expressed can only be inferred by the reader and the reader will never know the true emotions. However, all poetry is not meant to be easily determined through song. Poems with rhythmetic beat are almost as exciting; I sometimes even find myself attempting to sing a poem when I can sense the beat.

On November 16, 2008 at 10:59pm Maggie wrote:
While I do believe that music is an intrinsic part of poetry that should not be ignored, it would be a mistake to discredit poetry for poetry's sake. Hirsch is correct: written poetry and oral poetry are different entities. Because the purpose of oral poetry is to entertain, it must rely on devices like sensory imagery, beat, and rhythm to keep the attention of the listener. Previous posts have confirmed the necessity of what Hirsch might refer to as “novelties”. The average human being prefers music to poetry because it is easier to enjoy. This does not mean that music is less significant than poetry; indeed, music itself is a kind of poetry that can, with a certain amount of knowledge and effort, be dissected and analyzed in the tradition of written poetry. However, it does mean that oral poetry can be enjoyed without any conscious effort on the part of the listener. One doesn’t have to contemplate the philosophic implications of Rihanna’s “Disturbia” in order to enjoy the song. One may, but one needn’t. Written poetry, however, is quite different. The inner ear that Hirsch speaks of is not as easily pleased as the true ear. Sometimes written poetry seems so terribly obscure, so utterly opaque, that we choose to dismiss it rather than make an effort to understand and perhaps enjoy it. An analogy might be the difference between eating tuna out of a can from the grocery store and eating a fish that you yourself caught. Catching, scaling, and cooking a fish is much more difficult than opening a can, but there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from hard work. However, some people simply do not enjoy fishing, as is their prerogative.

On November 18, 2008 at 7:23pm kristin wrote:
I will admit that because of my love for music I sometimes discredit poetry for it's lack there of. It is wrong to sort the two distinct arts into one subject. I love to hear oral poetry because of the tone it is read in by an individual. However with written poetry, one is able to imagine their fondest voice reading the poetry to them.

On April 26, 2012 at 9:43am cashmere wrote:
i really likee this ... this is the best i ever heard about poetry ! <3 i lovee it Edward keep up thee good work !

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 Edward  Hirsch

Biography

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his own work, as well as demonstrated his adeptness at explicating the nuances and shades of feeling, tradition, and craft at . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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