Words? Music? No: it's what's behind.
--James Joyce, Ulysses
When poetry explores "what's behind" a host of golden daffodils or the wild swans at Coole, it offers perspective more than definition, implication more than explication. With nuance, metaphor, and suggestive sonorities, a poem eloquently evokes meanings that cannot be reduced to literal exactitude. The expressive powers of instrumental music might be described similarly: a timpani stroke or a dissonant chord implies, but does not specify, a moment of drama or tension. In this case, of course, literal exactitude is not possible. A musical tone or combination of tones cannot, by itself, communicate a specific image or a precise message. Yet most listeners would claim that music conveys a multitude of profound meanings, that there is a great deal "behind" allegedly abstract musical sounds--just as the reader of an effective poem finds a great deal "behind" its allegedly representative, definable language.
In a poem about or inspired by a specific piece of music, the opportunities for figurative nuance multiply, and new aesthetic and interpretive possibilities arise. Most often, the poet appears to convey something of his or her own experience with the music and reveals himself or herself as a notably imaginative listener. The attentive reader, in turn, brings a memory or understanding of music to the encounter with such a poem, and in so doing may discover an especially distinctive layer of meaning and aesthetic impact. In addition, the reader may gain a new appreciation of both the familial resemblances and the defining distinctions between music and poetry. A selective survey of poetry about specific musical works, along with a brief review of relevant scholarship, illuminates intriguing intersections between the two arts.
Despite the wealth of scholarship addressing the relationships between music and literature, poetry about specific pieces of music has drawn little critical attention. Calvin Brown's Tones into Words remains the only book-length survey, except for the extensive explication of a single poet's work in Francisco Cota Fagundes's A Poet's Way with Music: Humanism in Jorge de Sena's Poetry. (Claus Cliiver's brief essay "The Musikgedichte: Notes on an Ekphrastic Genre" also focuses on Sena's work.) The subject has been addressed peripherally in a handful of other works of musico-literary criticism (see Bruhn 94-101; Cliiver, "Ekphrasis" 28-29; Scher 188). This paucity of interest might be explained by the scarcity of outstanding poems in this specialized niche; Brown asserts that poems on specific musical compositions are generally "inadequate and derivative" (Tones 142). Still, a poet's response to a musical work offers a valuable perspective on the expressive powers and limitations of both music and language and invites the contemplation of art and meaning from a variety of angles.
In Tones into Words, Brown supplies a thoughtful framework for the systematic study of poetry based on specific musical compositions, along with analyses of several poems. Individual chapters focus on different poetic approaches, including imitation of music, description of music, and visual interpretations--techniques discussed at some length below. But Brown generally evaluates poems in terms of how well they "reproduce or suggest" specific pieces of music, and he rejects as unsuccessful those poems that "rely entirely on interpretation" (141). A poem that offers mostly visual imagery, narrative analogies, or anecdotal associations cannot, Brown says, give the reader "any idea of the music" (141). But this viewpoint assumes a somewhat narrow conception of the "ideas" of music, dismissing its vital connections to a broad spectrum of human experience. Moreover, Brown's analyses accord little attention to the literary value of the poems (i.e., the effectiveness of their imagery, metaphor, or diction) or to what other purposes poets may have beyond being "transcribers of music" (137). …