from MAKING YOU OWN DAYS by Kenneth Koch
The music of language needs to be explained, since most often in reading prose or in hearing people talk we aren’t much aware of anything resembling music. There are no horns, no piano, no strings, no drums. However, words can be put together in a way that puts an emphasis on what sound they make. Sound is part of the physical quality of words. “To sleep” means to rest and to be unconscious, and usually that is all it means, but it also has a physical nature—the sounds sl and eep, for example—that can be brought to the reader’s attention, like the sounds hidden inside a drum that emerge when you hit it with a stick. Once you are listening to the sound as well as to the meaning—as you won’t, say, if you read “Go to sleep” but will, almost certainly, if it is “To sleep, perchance to dream” (Shakespeare)—then you are hearing another language, in which that sound makes music which in turn is part of the meaning of what is said. The poetry language is used by persons who have things (known to them or not known) that they need to say, and who are moved by this need and by a delight in making music out of words.
The end of conventional rhyme—complete rhymes at the ends of lines—makes other sound similarities—the various kinds of partial rhymes— suddenly more audible and important to the music. The poet, having given up rhyme, doesn’t stop hearing the music of the poem: that the poem “sounds right” is essential to its being a poem, and sound similarities have everything to do with that—the sound, of course, being not only related to the emotional and intellectual content but infused with it and an integral part of it. So the poet must start hearing a music that is just as beautiful as before but now not sustained by regularly recurring notes. The intervals between one thought, between one musical impulse or one musical idea or sequence and another can be smaller or greater, according to the secret ways in which the mind is led by its desire for it, without the necessity of anchoring it down at given and expected points. Along with making for a subtler kind of music, the displacement of sound similarity from its role as an organizing force in the poem to being entirely something the poet is more or less unconsciously drawn to may result in a correspondingly irregular and less rationally controlled train of thought. The end rhymes are gone which completed thoughts and which organized them into a whole; the poet’s mind is left floating among possible musics, at the end of lines or more likely in their middles. This new music is appealing because it is surprising and fresh and to some poets is irresistible, too, for where it leads them, for giving them power to find a new order in the apparent disorder of sounds and thoughts. The new irregularly heard music can lead to a big, fragmentary collection of clearly depicted anecdotes and scenes, held together by invisible connections of sound and emotion, like William’s “Della Primavera Trasportata al Morale: April,” or to quite another kind of poem, like John Ashbery’s “Clepsydra,” in which meaning and music seem to have melted into one another so as to be indistinguishable.