Can You Sing a Poem?
While not every poem can be sung, and debate about how closely related the two art forms are rages on, most poems are musical enough to sing. Trying to sing a poem can be difficult. Read on to learn some tips and tricks for turning a poem into a song.
Music and poetry are sister arts—a truism embedded in the word 'lyric.'— Robert Pinsky (former Poet Laureate)
Formal vs. Free Verse
The formal will have rhyme, a regular rhythm, and enjoy a consistent structure. The contemporary (or free verse) can be confusing, and, while well thought out, seem like anything goes.
Formal Poetry Follows Rules
Personally, I lean towards the formal. First, you need to learn the basics. You need to understand the structure. If you do, it will be easier to break the rules. But, depending on the situation and skill of each individual, singing free verse poems may be easier. While I enjoy a clear musical pattern, it's not for everyone.
One example of a formal structure is iambic pentameter. This is a concise structure that is, nevertheless, quite dynamic. From Shakespeare to David Mamet, this structure has been used by many great writers. In fact, Mamet wrote The Untouchables in iambic pentameter, and you can hear the musical rhythm carry into the dialogue.
Formal structures pay so much attention to stressed and unstressed syllables that it's rather easy to figure out when to sing with more or less intensity.
Singing a Formal Poem
Formal means following the rules for that particular form, say a Petrarchan sonnet or a villanelle. Free verse means you aren't following any specific or explicit rules. The line is the central structure of poetry. Generally, a line will start at the left hand margin.
In this lens, we look at basic styles of expression to determine the "singability" of a poem. While I imagine some more intuitive vocalists will be able to sense what poems can be sung to what melodies, others will need to break the poem down line by line. I'm of the latter. I need to count out the beats. For example, let's look at the beats in the line "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
I count seven beats per line. Knowing the beats will help you know when to sign more or less forcefully and how to match the rhythm. Now, make sure you look at the surface of these words, at how they sound, and also how those sounds are voiced differently. This may require you to say them or sing them aloud. This is the whole point! Finding which words will need to be sung the most intensely will help you express the meaning or purpose of the poem.
More on Iambic Pentameter and Formal Structures
While it's good to learn that Shakespeare wrote his plays in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Pentameter mean five beats. Iambs are two syllables with the stress on the second. For example, "To be or not to be..." Let me be so severe as to break it down thusly: American English is loosely all iambic.
Now, to practice what we've learned about stressed and unstressed syllables, let's try signing "His Excuse for Loving," by Ben Johnson. Even though this poem is over 450 years old, its structure is still common today. Go slow and listen to the sounds your mouth makes.
His Excuse for Loving by Ben Jonson
Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
Just to clear things up for the theorists among us, each line goes stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed. This is a mixture of Trochaic meter and Anapestic meter. That's seven syllables in total. To put it simply, that means the front half of each line hits harder than the back half.
Free Verse and Jazz
Do you ever listen to Jazz? Free verse poetry is often thought of in the same terms. Robert Pinsky has written for some time about the relationship between music and poetry. Pinsky played sax in high school and has, I believe, a natural affinity for jazz. Many poets do.
Consider free verse as being like the routines you do on an evening at home. It's relaxing, yet no two evenings are really exactly alike. Even if you do the same things—eat, read, argue, make love, answer emails—you do it differently. That's how I think of jazz, as structured improvisation.
Most free verse poets began by reading and writing formal verse (just like how jazz musicians begin their careers studying music theory). They aren't breaking the rules for no reason.
Listening to the musicians, hearing them responding to what I do as a kind of non-singing vocalist, I try to hear several rhythms, several currents of harmony and emotion, all at once. I think of the performances as demonstrating something that is in the poems: not replacing it, but showing its nature. At these times, essential, separate themes of my life come together as one.— Robert Pinsky (on free verse poetry)
I have not been to that place Pinsky speaks of, but I can almost imagine it. In this next quote, Robert Frost speaks of writing a poem and the reading of a poem. I find it such a delight that I want to share it with the world.
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification...— Robert Frost (on free verse poetry)
For fun, try signing these lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me.
The bridegroom's doors are opened wide