We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.

Since the Modernist revolution and its Creative Writing Progam put Keats in a museum, the absolute worst thing a poem can be, the new masters of poetry say, is “sing-songy.”

One can be called a genius these days just by not being sing-songy.

Formalist verse, no matter how skillfully done, screams Amateur!  The more skillfully done, the more amateurish it seems.

When the success of something condemns it, you know something is afoot.

If poems were washing machines, you could put old ones in a museum—because all the new ones work better.

But John Ashbery and William Carlos Williams don’t wash clothes better than Keats.  They just don’t.

So what the hell is going on here?

We think what’s happening are two things:

First, the cult of “Make It New” has convinced enough influential persons that poems do resemble washing machines.

And secondly, as we said in the beginning of this essay: musical poetry, fashionable in previous centuries, is not considered serious.

Even though it’s unfortunate, the first can’t be helped; the new will always be fashionable for that reason.  But the second is worth looking into.

Is speech that’s musical less serious?

What of this example:

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is the most admired and remembered part of a newly elected U.S. president’s speech to the country and the world.  There is no doubt this speech was meant to be taken seriously.  This phrase, with its repetition and symmetry, is catchy as hell Kennedy’s famous phrase is swellingly, swooningly, melodiously and metrinomically musical. And deadly serious.

This example alone is enough to bust the modernist myth that any trace of song betrays a lack of seriousness on the part of the speaker—a myth that was swallowed, and ushered in our present era of flat poems which not a soul remembers.

Now obviously John F. Kennedy would have been a fool to stand before the world on that cold day back in 1961 and speak out limericks.

But only a fool assumes the worst example of a thing is what it is.

The modernist might sputter, “But—but—but…your JFK example isn’t really sing-songy. For, instance it doesn’t rhyme…”

Let’s heed the modernist complaint and see if rhyme can be serious…

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Oh crap!  Rhyme, rhyme, everywhere, and deadly serious.

Even ballad-coughing, melodramatic, hyperbolic, sentimental, self-hating, Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge shows the way to serious art through the music of poetry:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The art is serious; therefore, the sentiment is.

One clearly sees here two things: the whole issue of musical poetry is not bi-part—one is not either “prosey and serious” or “rhyming and not serious.”  The issue is far more complicated than the haters of “sing-songy” would have it.  And, secondly, one can see traces in the Coleridge of how the art of formal verse can be abused, can veer into the sickly and the over-emotional, violating the dictates of good taste and Plato’s Republic.  But let’s not blame the poetry, as the Modernists (in their bathos) did.  It’s not formal verse’s fault.  The Shakespeare is as different from the Coleridge as Coleridge is from Dryden, or Dryden is from Ashbery, or Ashbery is from T.S Eliot, or T.S Eliot is from himself, when the latter used rhyme seriously, or mock-heroically—depending on the occasion.  The laws of verse are not sentimental.  We are—even in our dullest, modern prose.

And now in our final example: who, in 2012, would wish that Emily Dickinson had not rhymed in order to be this serious:

 Heart, We Will Forget Him

Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!


  1. Nicholas, Esquire said,

    December 3, 2012 at 8:01 am

    Self-hating, sentimental, melodramatic, and sing-songy can be great. It’s just a matter of taste. If you automatically think these things are *bad*, I can only conclude you must hate and misunderstand music, and I have no idea why you’re a poet.

    Mad Girl’s Love Song

    “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
    I lift my lids and all is born again.
    (I think I made you up inside my head.)

    The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
    And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
    I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

    I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
    And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
    (I think I made you up inside my head.)

    God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
    Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
    I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

    I fancied you’d return the way you said,
    But I grow old and I forget your name.
    (I think I made you up inside my head.)

    I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
    At least when spring comes they roar back again.
    I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
    (I think I made you up inside my head.)”

    • Nicholas, Esquire said,

      December 3, 2012 at 8:34 am

      Of course, then, you have someone like Charles Bernstein, who is often musical. But what does he do to the music? He empties it of content and humiliates it.

    • noochinator said,

      December 3, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Great stuff, that, from Plath it erupted—
      Reminds me of the movie Girl, Interrupted
      Had ne’er before read it (which shows I’m a fool)—
      My excuse: I was edumicated in a public school—
      Or should my “excuse” be the pot that I smoked? No matter:
      I loved what the poem evoked, and what it did scatter—

      Thanks for posting!

  2. Mark said,

    December 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    “We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.”

    I have literally never heard anyone say anything even close to this. If “we” hear it all the time maybe you could find a source? Seems like it would be easy to find, what with us hearing it all the time.

    Am I to believe that you’ve run out of authors to knowingly misquote and decontextualize and have started quoting the voices in your head?



    • thomasbrady said,

      December 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm


      Don’t play dumb. You know very well what I’m talking about. One of the more famous sources is Pound’s silly remark about the musical phrase v. the metronome.


  3. The Old Man said,

    December 4, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Bravo, Tom. We should also remember thst song and rhyme have made it easier to memorize poems.
    Why did the ancient Bards sing the epic?

  4. Mark said,

    December 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Now who’s playing dumb, Tommy Boy?

    The quote from Pound you allude to has nothing to do with seriousness, nor does it impugn the musicality of speech.

    I guess even though “we hear it all the time these days” the most recent and only source you can find is from 1913 (these days… 100 years ago… pretty much the same thing to a small-minded pedant like yourself). It also has nothing to do with the point you’re making.

    Is your argument that formal, metered lyric is the only speech that qualifies as musical? This would exempt key parts of the operatic canon. I’m asking this because I genuinely don’t know – your essay is badly structured and poorly presented.

    Of course, any point you’re trying to make isn’t helped by being predicated on a clear and obvious mistruth. We don’t hear anything like that ever… from anyone.

    How about finding an instance of someone saying something even remotely like that from the last 50 years?

    How about writing worthwhile pieces like that Franz Wright commentary from a few weeks ago?

    This is another swing and a miss, my son.


    • Nicholas, Esquire said,

      December 4, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Mark, I’m sure we could agree on many fine points here, but the main thrust is correct (if not poorly articulated, and ultimately disingenuous)…American Poetry is headed towards total white supremacy. Much of the mainstream of so-called avant-garde poetry is actually the r &d for this development, and not its antagonist, as advertised. Someone like a Bernstein or Glenum, Flarf etc is using music, yes, but to do minstrelsy or bad white jazz variation…The Classical is kitsch, and as ghettoised as the human expression of “minorities” (hence their embrace of it)…and so on…

      Pound wanted poetry to be “as well-written as prose” – now we have on one hand thousands of terrible poems that are just poorly broken up prose with no musicality/verticality, and on the other nonsense minstrelsy that shucks and jives for state power.

      There are many poets who manage to escape this false dichotomy through music– whether metered or not – however, apparently no one is really interested in speaking of them here.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    December 4, 2012 at 1:52 pm


    The anti-sing-songy pedagogy is entrenched in Creative Writing today—so entrenched that it’s become an unwritten assumption—one either gets this or one doesn’t; you, my naive friend, obviously don’t.

    I gave one example, so its vintage is beside the point—it’s a founding belief from the Chief Noodlehead Modernist himself (someone needs to tell Pound the metronomic is musical) and it is displayed prominently again (if you want another example,) in the highly influential New Critics’ textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” where the authors quote Aldous Huxley’s attack on Poe’s “Ulalume,” and go on to denigrate what they call the thumping rhythm of that poem—it’s an interesting poem, a highly meritorious poem, but then the New Critics/Modernists always did have it out for Poe, which is a long interesting story in itself.


  6. Mark said,

    December 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm


    I cut and pasted your response into GoogleTranslate and set it to translate from “Flailing Bullshit > English” – here’s what came out:


    I have no idea what I’m talking about and haven’t a leg to stand on.


    What you actually said was: “We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.” So the “vintage” does matter – what with it being “these days.” Plus, if it’s an “unwritten assumption” then that would suggest we are not “hearing it all the time” as you say.

    If we hear it all the time then do give us a single example from the last 50 years. Your reference to Pound is a sentence where the poet – Noodleheaded, though he may be – states explicitly that musical language is serious language. I know you’re not an able reader so if you need me to deconstruct the line for you any further, I’d be happy to do so.

    I appreciate your attempt to give me a more modern example by alluding haphazardly to “Understanding Poetry” – a book published in 1938 – but, again, if we hear this all the time maybe you can give me something from the last 50 years… hell, make it 60.

    Give it a shot or admit that this entry is predicated on a false premise and is, as such, a big load of bullshit.


    PS – “Ulalume” is one of Poe’s worst – even you damn it with faint praise (“interesting” “meritorious” but not ‘good’). Even you, Tom, as willing as you are to look foolish and make yourself a laughing stock, won’t stick your neck out for that particular piece of doggerel.

    The story of the New Critics distaste for Poe is indeed a long story… interesting? Not so much. Especially with the current Poe Renaissance happening in academia these days.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm


      “Ulalume” is not doggerel—you (and others) mistake a lively rhythm for what you believe is doggerel: you are now demonstrating my essay’s point, so thanks. A good ear is necessary to distinguish good verse from hack verse; many can’t do it, so they defend free verse simply because they have no ear to begin with.

      Anyway, I didn’t select “Ulalume,” Huxley did, and then Brooks and Warren, the New Critic editors did, in order to bash Poe in the most widely used poetry textbook in the 20th century. We’ve hashed over this before and you showed your ignorance of the matter, then. The textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” undermines Poe— but Williams and Pound’s little poems are glorified. Textbook as entry into the canon—edited by friends and colleagues. There’s no “Poe Renaissance happening in academia these days;” Poe is an industry unto himself and so there’s always something “happening” with him, usually at the hands of ignorant commentators. A “Poe Renaissance” will occur only when the deceptions and lies used against him are spotlighted. A great de-briefing needs to happen.


  7. Mark said,

    December 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm


    Once again you misrepresent me: I love Poe’s metered works – I think “Ulalume” is failure for reasons other than its formal construction. Once again you damn with faint praise – you’ll not comment on its content only its form. This is why there’s no room for you in the burgeoning Poe Renaissance. Your mind is too narrow – more than too narrow: too small – to take in and appreciate the many aspects of Poe’s verse.

    Now, I repeat: if, as you state, “we hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.” If this is the case why can’t you find any examples of this? Enough detours, Tom, a single instance from a reputable commentator made within the last 50 years.

    Otherwise, I take your last post as an admission that “this entry is predicated on a false premise and is, as such, a big load of bullshit.”


    • Mark said,

      December 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      PS – your essay had a point? It must have been buried so deeply under the subtle mistruths and outright lies that I completely missed it 🙂

  8. Mark said,

    December 5, 2012 at 4:41 am


  9. thomasbrady said,

    December 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm


    It’s an unwritten rule. Haven’t you ever heard of “unwritten rule.” Have you ever been in a poetry workshop, or known someone who has been in one—as a student or a teacher?

    You’re not aware of the free verse revolution which has changed serious poetry over the last, oh, 100 years or so, and even more so, during the Program era of the last 50 years, or so? Why is this so hard for you to grasp? Your criticism is welcome, but you veer into needless nit-picking when you are intentionally obtuse.

    As for the ‘content’ of “Ulalume,” that’s not what I was discussing, nor was it the issue of the authors of “Understanding Poetry;” they attacked the rhythm of the poem.

    My mind is “too narrow,” come on, Mark, now you are just being insulting; why have I got your goat? There was a bit of a Poe renaissance in mid-20th century ‘French Theory’ (Lacan’s “Purloined Letter” etc) but except for that, Poe hasn’t got much respect: T.S. Eliot most famously trashed Poe in 1949 (From Poe to Valery) and Harold Bloom again, in the NY Review in 1984, and these men were essentially repeating Huxley’s attack in 1936. The biographies have just been insulting. John Walsh’s investigation of Poe’s murder (Midnight Dreary) in 2000 was good. Poe papers on specific works appear from time to time which are excellent—to study Poe’s works closely is always profitiable, given his genius—but the English-speaking Letters Establishment has been very insulting, given Poe’s importance in just making Modernism look silly by his very presence: whenever Pound or Eliot say something that makes sense, one discovers they have secretly stolen it from Poe; meanwhile they denigrate him openly, Pound through omission and Eliot with his direct assault.

    Look at the Shakespeare sonnet and its formalism compared to the Plath (Mad Girl’s Song)—the latter is doggerel, a work-shop exercise, and Plath was a very good poet. Formalism is not easy. One can clearly see how Williams and Pound attempted formalism, failed, and then tried to make it look like they were making profound ‘experiments.’


  10. April 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    […] We recently wrote on rhyme here. […]

  11. Drew said,

    May 24, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Even if Mark WAS right, his nastiness would render his rightness irrelevant.

  12. noochinator said,

    July 6, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    This text of this song (see below) is by Shakespeare, from ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Act IV, scene 4. It’s sung in the play by Autolycus, who is a peddler of women’s garments and gewgaws, as well as a klepto, clothesline thief, etc. The music and singing in this version is by moi. (“Lawn” is a white cotton fabric, and “Cypress” is a thin black fabric):

    Lawn as white as driven snow,
    Cypress black as e’er was crow,
    Gloves as sweet as damask roses,
    Masks for faces and for noses,
    Bugle bracelet, necklace amber,
    Perfume for a lady’s chamber,
    Golden quoifs and stomachers,
    For my lads to give their dears,
    Pins and poking-sticks of steel,
    What maids lack from head to heel.
    Come buy of me, come. Come buy, come buy.
    Buy, lads, or else your lasses cry.
    Come buy.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 7, 2014 at 2:07 am


      That’s really nice! I’m very impressed!


      Maybe a Winters Tale production will use your version some day. But for now Scarriet is proud to have this art.

      • noochinator said,

        July 7, 2014 at 9:36 am

        Thanks for the kind words. Perhaps a flaw is that it sounds more like a love song to the goods than an attempt to sell them!

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 7, 2014 at 2:58 pm

          Well, a love song to the goods should help to sell them!

      • noochinator said,

        July 7, 2014 at 10:13 am

        How the pros do ‘t!

        1. Thomas Morley – It was a lover and his lass (Shakespeare: As You Like It)

        2. Anon. – O mistress mine (Shakespeare: Twelfth Night) – from 3:09

        3. Robert Johnson – Where the bee sucks (Shakespeare: The Tempest) – from 4:49

        Alfred Deller, countertenor
        Desmond Dupré, lute

    • Desdi said,

      May 13, 2017 at 11:11 pm

      …women’s garments and gewgaws, as well as a klepto, clothesline thief, etc. ?

      Sounds like ARNOLD LAYNE to me !

      • noochinator said,

        May 14, 2017 at 10:02 pm

        Yeah, Autolycus thinks it takes
        Just one to know, unlike most rakes.

  13. noochinator said,

    May 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

    “Poetry which has decided to do without music, to divorce itself from song, has thrown away much of its reason for being, and a recognition of the element of music in poetry narrows the gap between, for instance, Keats and Byron, which might appear to a reader who had never heard them to be almost unbridgeable. Until quite recently there was an academic fashion for looking down on Tennyson, who was said to be mellifluous but simpleminded. But listen to Tennyson, and his music will tell you something that the closest sort of mute analysis cannot do, and his stature as a poet is restored and perhaps increased thereby.” – Robertson Davies, from ‘Reading’


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