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In the beginning, poems were songs. Sonnets were little songs. A villanelle was a dance. Does the meaning of poetry still depend, not just on the sense of words, but on their sounds?

In his essay The Music of Poetry (1942), T. S. Eliot writes:

We can be deeply stirred by hearing the recitation of a poem in a language of which we understand no word; but if we are then told that the poem is gibberish and has no meaning, we shall consider that we have been deluded — this was no poem, it was merely an imitation of instrumental music.

But what if this isn’t true? Or at least, only partly true?

I believe that the music of poetry is integral to its power. I think that poems linger in our minds because their sounds build upon the powerful sense they make. I believe that all writers, no matter what style or form they write in, can benefit from treating language like a musical instrument, feeling the rhythm of their words, as well as thinking about the logical sense of what they are saying. Like the songs it emerged from, poetry still depends on the rhythm and musicality of language.

In this course we will explore poetic soundscapes, listening to and developing our ear for our own poems. We will treat the line of poetry like a line of music, exploring subjects such as:

1.Poetic metre, formal verse and free verse.

2. Rhyme, slant rhyme, and refusing rhyme altogether.

3. Line breaks and line length (what happens if we use very long lines, or very short ones? What happens if we move the line breaks, or use enjambment to create suspense?)

4. Long and short sentences (can we think of sentences as poetic forms?)

5. Poems built around particular letters or sounds, from A to Z.

6.Weaving nonhuman noises into our poems, such as birdsong, or a dog barking, or a car alarm.

7. Sound poems and translations (no second-language knowledge needed!)

Reading for this course will be diverse, running from masters of form such as Gwendolyn Brooks (see her beautiful use of rhyme and half-rhyme in her sonnet my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell:, to experimental soundscapes by Kurt Schwitters (listen to his sound poem Ursonate here:, to contemporary lyric poets, such as Denise Riley (see her moving elegy, A Part Song, here:, and Helen Mort (see her poem Push the button, hear the sound) here:

If poetry is a musical instrument, there’s more than one way to play it. Let us count the ways.

Soundscapes with Becky Varley-Winter will run from May 20 till July 15 as an online course on our Summer Term 2021. Join the waiting list by e-mailing [email protected]

Image Credit: Free to Use Sounds

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