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 Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


As composer converses with poet, students are "awesomed out"
by Clint Talbott, media relations coordinator, College of Arts & Sciences

Harold Bloom, the noted literary critic, Yale professor and author of “The Western Canon,” has said that teaching Emily Dickinson’s poems leaves him with fierce headaches, “since the difficulties force me past my limits.”

How, then, are undergraduate students supposed to appreciate Dickinson? Elissa Guralnick, a professor of English at the University of Colorado, offers an answer.

It is music. Like poetry, music fuses sound and sense. But music tends to appeal directly to the emotions, whereas poetry often reaches the heart by challenging the mind, even of towering intellectuals like Bloom.

Music can help explain a poem’s meaning, and perhaps that’s one reason composers step in. Igor Stravinsky, for instance, famously set to music Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Such musical interpretations of poetry are common and, Guralnick contends, instructive.

Though Guralnick is an English professor, she teaches in the Musicology Department in the College of Music.

There, she finds that music helps students “get” poetry, even the head-spinning variety of Dickinson.

The 19th century poet’s work has been set to music by many composers, but one particularly astute interpretation, Guralnick says, comes from Aaron Copland. The American composer set a dozen of Dickinson’s poems to music, including “Heart! We Will Forget Him!” What especially intrigues Guralnick is that the poem, on first reading, seems simpler than it is, and the music, on first hearing, harder.

“In a world of rap, rock, heavy metal and Muzak, Copland’s setting of ‘Heart! We Will Forget Him!’ would seem hopelessly effete, beyond comprehension by the general population, students above all,” Guralnick writes in a recent edition of English Language Notes, the CU English Department’s literary journal.

One might expect eye-rolling responses to Copland’s rendition of Dickinson, but classroom experience belies the expectations. “In one class of undergraduates majoring in neither music nor English, the song transfixed the group,” Guralnick writes.

“Through their familiarity with the poem, the students were able to make sense of the music, though its edginess nonetheless took them by surprise,” she writes, adding that the element of surprise helped them hear the words anew.

No longer were they in the presence of a “great poem” to be clinically dissected into components of meter, rhyme, metaphor and allusion.

“They were now in the grasp of an importunate utterance, demanding that they, like Copland before them, share in the anguish of its yearning,” Guralnick writes. “A murmur of agreement ran through the class when [after hearing the song] one of the students lifted her head from the cradle of her arms and softly remarked, ‘I’m awesomed out.’”


Guralnick believes that students are often taught poetry as if it were an assemblage of literary terms to be memorized, as if a key question about a poem is whether it is in iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter.

An “iamb,” incidentally, has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one; “report” and “consign” are iambic. A “trochee” is the opposite, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one; “double” and “trouble” are trochaic.

“Pentameter” is a line of poetry containing five metrical feet—five iambs, for instance. A line in “tetrameter” has four metrical feet.

But those are just arms in the poet’s arsenal. “What matters is what the poem is saying,” Guralnick intones. “Too often students are asked to learn the terminology … and they don’t know why they’re doing it.”

With music, however, poetry can seem less daunting. Students have an immediate response to music, even if it’s classical, Guralnick says.

This poetic “explication par excellence” can even assist a professor of English.

“I think Copland gave me Emily Dickinson,” Guralnick says. “I didn’t appreciate her before.” She pauses, then adds, “Maybe I shouldn’t admit this.”

But with Copland’s musical amplification of Dickinson’s nuances, “I learned how spirited her sense of humor is and how complex her tone.”

“Heart! We Will Forget Him!” seems straightforward. The speaker converses with her heart about lost love and her desire to move on.

In the text Copland used, the poem reads:

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!

As Guralnick notes, the poem seems urgent, as if Dickinson cannot waste a moment washing that man out of her hair. But while the poem is peppered with exclamation points, Copland’s song is slow and plodding.

Instead of emphasizing words of action and urgency—such as “will forget” and “haste”—Copland places no emphasis on the former and frames the latter in uncertainty.

“Evidently, the poem struck Copland as ironic,” Guralnick writes. This is nowhere more obvious than in Copland’s treatment of the final word, “him.” Copland takes the final note “home,” to the tone expected by Western ears. “And what a ‘home’ it is: a major chord, yearned for and luminous like the beloved himself.”

Guralnick says she loves the “dialogue” that can happen between composer and poet. “They may never have met, but they can converse across time.”

Such dialogue shows that a poem is alive, she adds. Additionally, Guralnick notes common ground between music and poetry.

“What I have always loved about music is that the kind of reading that you do when you study a score is the same kind of reading you do when you study a poem: it’s a close reading,” Guralnick says. “It’s meditative to me.”

If it’s a good poem, she adds, “The closer you look, the more you see.” And hear.

Reprinted with permission from Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.

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