In The Praise Singer, Mary Renault’s novel of classical Greece, we read:

“The song was the dance; the bard was its perfect instrument. He sang it lightly but with reverence; none of those little variations thrown in to flatter the hosts, though they are sometimes good enough to keep. This piece was sacred, this he handled like a phoenix egg.”

What pleasure the author must have experienced in writing those sentences, in evoking the pristine skies of Western poetry. I believe it is most every poet’s wish to, in some way, touch upon the dawn of art. Elsewhere in the novel, Renault defines the term “rhapsodist,” as a performer chanting Homer. In the Oxford English Dictionary a rhapsode is described, in an 1834 citation by H.N. Coleridge from his book Greek Poets: “These rhapsodes were indigent persons, who gained their livelihood by reciting the Homeric poetry.”

Years ago, in Toronto, I met an English actor who had quit the profession to become a reciter of verse. He had in ready memory a repertory of some 400 poems. He could deliver Burns in Scots dialect. It was from this remarkable individual that I first heard of a rhapsode. A rhapsode, he told me, held a cylinder of some sort, perhaps like a martial baton, firmly with both hands, so as to absorb the emotion of the performance, so the voice would not falter.

In the oral tradition the heroic tales are of the tribe and the poetic devices are familiar to the audience. The poet might interject new material into the story. But the poet was not first a literary artist. Rather, he was a seer and teller of the tribal tales. Modern bards, reciting epic tales running into thousands of lines, often with a stringed instrument, have passed down their craft into the 20th Century, in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, and in Swahili-Arabic cultures.

These bards have had little impact on Western prosody, I suspect, because language and culture are off the beaten track. Nonetheless, we have a fairly convincing picture of the Ur poet of Western tradition as a singer of sacred choral hymns and secular lyrics. The lyric was combined with the lyre, or more probably the seven-string kithra, among the Greeks.

T.S. Eliot could say, with some authority in his bygone era, that “some poetry is meant to be sung; most poetry, in modern times, is meant to be spoken.” In the 1960s, certain folk/rock lyricists, with a knowledge of poetry, were openly called troubadours and were widely considered by their peers to be the de facto poets of their time. They rejoined the lyric with the plucked string instrument, the guitar, and sold millions of records.

Today, half a century later, we live in an ever more aural, performance-based culture, the era of the open mic. You can listen to podcasts on the Web, poetry accompanied by music on Public Radio, or an unadorned poetry reading at the local library or a friend’s apartment. The average attendance of a faculty poetry reading at Harvard is 75 persons, I have read. Looking at YouTube as a measure of popularity, the def jam poets (nearly all minority), and slam poets lead the way with views sometimes in seven figures. An animated version of Billy Collins reading his poem “The Dead” has accumulated 700,000+ views in two years. Ted Koosner, reading at a lectern as Poet Laureate, comes in at 10,000+ views. Renditions of Rumi on YouTube draw strong audiences.

Cleary, performance pays, and poetry written primarily for the microphone, is the biggest draw of all. Page-oriented poets, the sort who attend a reading at Harvard, may well roll their eyes and object that they don’t care for def jam or slam poetry. It’s not their cup of tea, to put it mildly. I think that the energy of this parallel poetry universe disturbs them.

What I am trying to do is this brief essay is to shed light on the discussion of sound vs. sense, page vs. mic, lyricist vs. lyric poet, by going back to origins. Many serious artists, I have discovered, are interested in this subject. Obviously, word preceded written word; and word, writing, music and dance, are all ancient. In recent times I would say that poetry meant for silent reading and lectern presentation has fallen into decline, not so much in terms of numbers of poems published, in print and on the Web, but it’s not where the action is. This is a result of tectonic plate shifts in the culture.

We live in a much more aural culture than when Caedmon Records were the main source of poets reading their poems, less reflective and more demonstrative. Just as we now know that the Greeks painted their statues in polychrome, which peeled off over time, we know that music played a role in poetry in antiquity, providing historical roots for the sound explosion we hear today.

Which is not to say that page poets need to despair that theirs is an illegitimate, dying art form, the sick man as portrayed by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Returning to The Praise Singer, we read this passage: “Well, sir,” I said after a while. “one always sings keeping sheep.” “Sing me a shepherd’s song, then.” I hesitated, now overcome with shyness. “It’s not a real poem, sir. It’s just a song.”

In Keats’ “Ode On A Grecian Urn” we read these lines:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Artists have different sensibilities and write, paint, compose, according to their nature. There are loud artists and there are quiet artists, cerebral writers and cerebral musicians. The quiet ones might sell fewer copies of their books and CDs than the more aggressive, higher decibel types. They might also see further, feel more deeply. Poetry is vision. It does not mainline emotion quite the way pop songs do, leave as much spit on the microphone. I have heard there are great rewards for such artists, such visionary beings. Sometimes I believe that is true.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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