Today, I start a new chapter in the Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition (XJ Kennedy): Song. I was going to skip this chapter as I really wanted to talk of poetry in terms of its language and tropes – things that can be found in prose (non-fiction and fiction storytelling narratives i.e. feature articles, novels and short stories), so song deviated more towards the particulars in poetry itself.
Song is a very special category of poetry. It is unknown whether the music of song was first and the poetic verse came second. Did people originally recite rhythmic stanzas in a monotone? Or did they hum a tune that was meaningful to them and then come up with words later that fit the tune? It is definitely of religious origin and no coincidence that the word “chant” brings up images of church and magic spells (the original type of prayer). A prayer was sung to plead with the gods to allow the crops to be abundant this year, sung to plead for rain (rain dances are always accompanied by a prayer chant). You go to church and can hear the priest chanting verses from the bible (though you might not understand it if he’s chanting in Latin – they’re still verses from the bible). In church, it’s like a sing-along, where the parishioners will sing back, “and also with you” and “amen”.
We also know that song and poetry is what started drama. Originally, dramas we’re elaborate prayer ceremonies where histories of the gods and the heroes were chanted and acted out. But they were sung. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus” is the opening of the Iliad of Homer. A very long poem dedicated to the heroes of ancient Greece. Many know that this epic was chanted and given meter and its own rhyme scheme, so, in other words a very long song. Often the ancient tales are referred to as song or having been sung – “singing the tales of the ancients” as they would say.
I often wondered if song added magic to a poem. If in experiencing it, we also re-enact the actions of our ancient heroes,Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Achilleus, Hercules, Samson, Abraham and even Jesus. We often dedicate songs to those we most admire, perhaps that’s why there are so many love songs.
But here we have a ballad, a narrative song, which recounts a story of the not-so-glorious. Sometimes ballads are sung to protest a cruel and unrepentant figure, sometimes to tell a story of a tragic or perhaps only pathetic figure. In this ballad, Richard Cory, the figure is tragic in a way – he is noble and has much grace – and pathetic in another – he can’t enjoy the bounty he has been given (which is shameful in comparison to those who view him and have to struggle and scrape just for the essentials in life, but continue on living it).
Perhaps he has more dignity than some of the ruthless millionaires of today who scrape their influence across our lives and destroy all the goodness in it because they want more, more, MORE! They blame us for our poverty, despite the fact that they have an active hand in it; sociopaths who aren’t bothered that their influences cause the suffering of millions. Perhaps Richard Cory had the dignity to be bothered by his horrific influence on society and took the honorable way out.
by E.A. Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Can you hear the musicality in the verse? The way the meter stresses every few syllables the same musical way in which song does? Perhaps this is why Simon and Garfunkel decided to turn this into a song. I also did not want to use this chapter because, I didn’t want to mess with copyright issues (which I still might have to do, but rock stars throw up the biggest fuss, so I didn’t want to deal with it). Anyhow, I will not post the words to this song, instead I’ll let you listen to them sing them. You can compare and contrast the differences between the two poems (Richard Cory in 1966 has a yacht and orgies, and appears in the newspapers, rather than just walking through the center of town – apparently his power has multiplied over the years).
And even though Richard Cory has gotten more powerful with each generation, the people under him are still working in his factories in poverty struggling with their basic needs. How strange that that is thing that stays the same.
by Paul Simon