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Visceral Language in Poetry and Lyric

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On a trip to Boston earlier this year, I enjoyed the ease and convenience of Uber to make my way into Back Bay each morning. On one such trip I met a very insightful doctoral candidate driving my Uber car. As we exchanged pleasantries, we quickly realized how our studies of interest intersected over language, and I asked if he might share his thoughts about words and how we use and sometimes ignore their purpose and power in everyday life. The points he makes are interesting to us as lyric writers and songwriters, and I found his insights empowering as he encourages every one of us to harness the power that language contains. Below is a wonderful post by Paul Masters, a doctoral candidate in the Tufts University Department of Drama and Dance. He taught a course in Spring 2015 entitled “Sex, Violence, and Desire on the Early Modern Stage,” and will reprise the course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in the Fall.

Visceral Language in Poetry and Lyric

In the modern world, we have little use for language. Through the shortened, terse mediums of e-mail, text message, Facebook status, or tweet, language conveys little more than bits of data—tiny nudges constructed merely to fill time and space with noise. Language, in effect, has become data; a thing to be managed through endless cohorts of applications and software updates.

This was not always the case. Long before students in my acting classrooms tried to make their way through a Shakespearean sonnet, feeling their way through the syllables as if it was an ancient, archaic tongue, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language. And in the barely imaginable world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these same people flocked to the theatre to hear that poetry.

For the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, there was little romantic about the process. The theatre of the time was a going concern, a profitable business of dubious morality striving to produce as much poetic material as possible in the shortest amount of time. It was rare for playwrights to self-publish, and rarer still for them to achieve great wealth (though a few examples existed).

Language, as it is now, has become a means to end rather than a serious means of entertainment. Cicely Berry, the celebrated Shakespearean voice coach, categorizes our verbiage this way:

I am taking heightened text to mean writing which is built on rhythmic structure, where there is compression of imagery, and where we understand as much through the logic of the imagery as through the factual reasoning. And I am taking naturalistic text to be prose, where the structure of the story is built on a logical progression of ideas, where the dialogue is rooted in everyday speech patterns, and where imagery is more incidental than essential.

Most of what we encounter in the day-to-day is naturalistic, and it is easy to remain in that frame of mind when entering the rehearsal hall. Berry expands, when speaking about speeches from Othello, on the visceral need for images to exist in the play’s language, asserting that “The images are not a description of how they (Othello and Cordelia) feel: they are an essential part of their expression. They are therefore not poetic elaboration, not there for an effect. They are necessary, and part of the vigour of the language.” This attitude towards language seems foreign to most of my students, who want to underplay the images infusing the language, and whose bodies physically resist feeling the shape of the thoughts and images on the tongue and in the body. Yet, with some experience and exercise, a turn takes place that allows the words and their rhythms to take hold, if only for a moment, and become integrated into the present.

Practically speaking, what is missing from language these days, I believe, is not some hearkening back to an earlier, over-romanticized era, but a real, honest attention to how words build in the body and erupt from us in speech. Because of my personal experiences, that attention takes the form of Shakespearean language. However, it can be as simple as holding words or strings of words in the mouth—even until they feel rather silly. What do they feel like, and what do they make you feel? When you put your words together to make full thoughts, what happens to your body? Does the language evoke a visceral response? Do you read other people’s poetry out loud? Answering these questions, I suggest, brings us closer to turning poetry and lyric into language worth savoring, rather than utilitarian bits and bytes of information.

I close with a piece by Stephen Fry that approaches something like the point I make here.

About

Andrea Stolpe teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne. She is also the author of Popular Songwriting: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.

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