Hearing the Music of a Tiny Masterpiece

Eight years ago, Germaine Greer wrote a delightfully grumpy  and probably deliberately provocative piece in The Guardian about Bob Dylan’s verse. She was exasperated by being asked to believe that the lyrics in a Dylan song were the same thing as poetry. That fascinating argument has nothing to do with the Torbay Festival Competition. But in the course of developing her thought, she gave a wonderful analysis of the way an undisputed masterpiece of poetry – William Blake’s The Sick Rose – carries its own music within its words

The singer-songwriter transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song; Blake’s achievement is to encapsulate the entire process in silence…The poem is as simple as may be, being composed of three sentences, the first and third simple and the middle one with a subordinate clause. The words are all common: we know what each means but not what is meant by them together. The theme of love and death that permeates our entire literary tradition lies coiled upon itself in this tiny poem, capable at any moment of setting off a chain reaction in the mind.

Every word of Germaine Greer’s article is worth reading.  The reason I quote it here is that I am aware how easily, in poetry judging, the music of the poems can be underestimated or overlooked. Poetry is not only but also an aural art form and its words ought not to lie like dead mutton on the page. A poem is the voice of another person speaking to you, singing to you, confiding in you, explaining to you, entertaining you…..all or any of these.  You should be able to hear a good poem’s ‘voice’ and be captured/captivated by its driving energy. You need to be able to hear the living voice when you absorb yourself in the printed page.

Reading too many poems, at speed, too judgmentally, you have to be very careful not to miss the living voice.  But you also have to be careful not to miss the quiet subtleties of the deliberately crafted music which will carry a poem brilliantly in live performance, but which may have been designed to whisper rather than to flaunt itself too loudly from the page.

I will try to ‘hear’ the voice of every poem which is submitted to Torbay. When any poem comes in sight of the longlist which will precede the shortlist, I will be reading it aloud, probably more than once.  For the first three weeks on September, therefore, I will be the abstracted person walking round my home city with a thousand anonymous voices in my head.