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  • "Sing to Me Now":Contemporary American Poetry and Song
  • Jahan Ramazani (bio)

The old question of the relation of poetry to song may seem an unlikely framework within which to explore new American poems, published in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The primal unity between song and lyric poetry (the Greek lyrikos meaning "singing to the lyre") is often said to have been fractured long ago by written texts and then exploded by print culture. In Giorgio Agamben's history of European lyric, "the poetic text's definitive break with song (that is, with the element Dante called melos)" came about around the twelfth century, when a poem became "essentially graphic" (32, 33). James William Johnson dates this "crucial metamorphosis" later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when "the poet ceased to 'compose' his or her poem for musical presentation but instead 'wrote' it for a collection of readers"; now suited "to a visual as well as an auditory medium," the lyric "found itself bereft of the very element which had been the foundation of its lyricism—music" (714). Whether the "story of the separation between song and speech" is set in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or another period, it is haunted by the possibility of a split even at the point of origin, according to Jacques Derrida: "Degeneration as separation, severing of voice and song, has always already begun" (199). Despite efforts by Ezra Pound and other modernists to heal this primordial breach, recuperating a poetics in which "the arts of verse and music were most closely knit together" and poets "compose verse to some sort of a tune" (Literary Essays 91; Selected Prose 37), the gap [End Page 716] between poetry and song, understood as verse set to music, arguably yawned wider in modernism and its aftermath. Contemporary American poetry's largely free-verse techniques have relegated most song forms to the margins, while most songs have clung to regular forms.

But to dismiss song as having no critical purchase on contemporary poetry leaves a host of questions unaddressed. If poetry and song have irrevocably parted ways, why do many contemporary poems—both "experimental" and "mainstream"—call themselves "songs" in their titles and texts? How do we explain contemporary poems' abundant quotations of song lyrics from rock, pop, blues, rap, jazz, opera, folk, and other music? How do we understand the survival of at least some song structures in contemporary poems? What is the influence on poetry of the rise of technologies for the mass distribution and circulation of recorded song in digital form? Though we might think of the intergeneric and intermedial crossing between poetry and song as more relevant to medieval carols, Renaissance madrigals, and Romantic ballads, we learn something about contemporary poetry by teasing out its self-understanding in relation to song, both its interfusions with song and its implicit self-definitions by contrast with it. Among contemporary writers whose work exemplifies poetry's fruitful and fraught intersections with song in the 2000s are American poets seldom thought of as having much in common with one another, including Rae Armantrout, Michael Palmer, Tracie Morris, Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, Kevin Young, Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes, Cathy Park Hong, and Paul Muldoon (explored after a glance back at James Merrill, as well as a brief look at Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, C. K. Williams, Alberto Ríos, D. A. Powell, and others).1 [End Page 717]

The frequent use of "song" in the titles of contemporary poems, where it often means something like "poem suggestive of the sound, spontaneity, and simplicity of song," never entirely eclipses the figurative leap from one kind to another. Like his early poem entitled "Song" in Field Guide (1973), Robert Hass's "Three Dawn Songs in Summer" in Time and Materials (2007), though lacking the formal properties typical of song, elicits song's associations with emotion, brevity, and impulse. In the second of the "dawn songs," summer light is described as "very young and wholly unsupervised. / No one has made it sit down to breakfast. / It's the first one up, the first one out"—a personification that partly justifies the title by linking the light's delightful...


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