The Life of the Poem in Song

By Susan Stewart on November 14, 2019
Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart
Poet, critic, translator, and Princeton University professor Susan Stewart joins us for our second Emerging Voices panel discussion (January 20).
She offers a poet's perspective on the multifaceted relationship between poetry, music, and song in her essay for the project below.

For a poet with little vocal or theatrical talent, hearing her poems sung by a gifted professional singer is a joyful dream--one that forever afterward shapes the way she hears her work on the page and in her memory. I am one of those poets. I first heard my work come alive in this way two decades ago when the legendary soprano Dawn Upshaw sang my poem “Cinder” in a setting by my fellow Philadelphian, the composer James Primosch, as a selection of her annual concert season. In the ensuing years, Upshaw and others have continued to perform the piece and Jim Primosch has set more of my published poems. We also have gone on to write a completely new tenor cycle, “Songs for Adam,” premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 2009, and a new soprano cycle, “A Sibyl,” which premiered at Bard’s Longy School in Cambridge in 2017 and was performed last summer by the New Juilliard Ensemble at the Museum of Modern Art. This summer we have written a new choral piece for a 140-voice honors choir of teenagers. I have written as well a few songs for other composers, including some lyrics for the ensemble of the great jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg. A poet writing songs can find beauty in sound and the powers of the human voice that lie dormant when a poem exists only on the page.

I have been a poet most of my life and the history of lyric poetry is my academic field, yet only in working through many of the practical dimensions of writing songs have I come to understand how poems become songs and how songs are not always poems. Poems and songs can share many features — first person voice, stanzaic or strophic form, refrain, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, for example. But the earliest lesson I learned through working with composers was that, if it is going to be sung, a poem cannot have too many words. Music, more than any other dimension, will be what weaves sound and meaning in the sung poem.

On the page, printed poems are clear — vowels can slide into one another, enjambment can provide a welcome tension against meter, a surprisingly short line can produce an effective closure. But these features, among many others, pose particular difficulties when a poem is sung and usually have to be eschewed. Conversely, I have had to work to convince my composer collaborators that a singer can stutter (as, say, Adam might as he learns to speak) or that a soprano taking on the persona of an ancient sibyl can throw her voice in a visual pattern if the repetitions are spaced exactly, or that everyday diction, so long as it can be enunciated clearly, can change a song’s tone and speed.

Songs play a vibrant role in the history of English poetry and from the start they have taken their power from the immediate context of the singing, a context that often is the natural world. Consider the widely-anthologized thirteenth century song “Svmmer is i-cumen in/ Lludhe sing cuccu,” renowned as a point of origin for most anthologies of the English lyric. Hundreds of years later, this rondellus, or round, lives on — for instance, on Youtube one can find an astonishing film from the 1972 Munich Olympics that documents thousands of schoolchildren circling the athletic field, dancing and singing the lyric.

In this work, the imperative to sing is directed both to the cuckoo and to the human singer who can mimic the cuckoo’s song. The backdrop is an expanding scene of animal fertility. This very early song reminds us that to sing is to come alive and to respond to other living things. Its descendants include the soprano blackbird of Olivier Messiaen and the incantations of Giacinto Scelsi

Many of Shakespeare’s songs seem to have been well-known before he included them in his plays. Poems by Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, and Robert Herrick had long afterlives as songs. In the eighteenth century and into the Romantic period, the poets John Gay, Anne Finch, Elizabeth Rowe, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and John Clare wrote hymns and ballads.

The most important and path-breaking books of English Romanticism, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, owe a deep debt to vernacular song traditions. When Alfred Lord Tennyson died in 1892, he was lauded as the musician’s poet, since so many of his works had been set by composers. All of Emily Dickinson’s poems are written in hymn meter. The steady stream of poems become songs fed the development of not only the German Romantic lieder, but also the range and popularity of the piano. And the professionalization of ballad and song scholarship turned many songs back into poem texts — a situation that is reversed whenever the work is rediscovered and revived in performance.

Each of the possibilities of song form — strophic, binary, ternary, through-composed, or, like “Svmmer is i-cumen,” roundel — can have a corollary in poems and their sequencing. Even so, as poetry lives on the page and in quiet rooms, it has the resource of rereading and turning back.

In contrast, song travels on the air and beyond the singer, taking on a public life. John Donne, in “The Triple Fool,” showed the perils and merits of this when he wrote:

Some man, his art and voice to show,
    Doth set and sing my pain;

And, by delighting many, frees again
    Grief, which verse did restrain.

To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.

Both are increased by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published.

The poem as sung is vividly shared. It awakens us to our immediate being, to the importance of what happens once, and to the fleeting reality of the life of our art in time.

Susan Stewart participates in our second Emerging Voices panel discussion on Monday, January 20 at the College of Physicians. For tickets and information, visit the event page or