Ear before eye

Sound is everything.

This struck me while reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda in translation for the special poetry roundup in today's paper (page 19). Though I can read Spanish, it has been years since I lived in Mexico where I could speak and hear Spanish.

A poem in translation is severed from its linguistic moorings. It risks being a skeleton. No definition, no muscle tone.

A poem has auditory nuance, respiratory pacing, and pauses embedded in it. Literary critics call this prosody - the scientific and artistic study of verse. Just as our schools need to return to the basics of teaching grammar and geography, they need to return to instruction in prosody.

Most of us listen to music without watching a video. But the demands of MTV skewer the auditory experience to sight, rather than sound. In contrast to early rock 'n' roll songs, Frank Sinatra, or show tunes by the likes of George Gershwin, pop lyrics in a video age sound dessicated.

Rap music, which prominently exploits lyrics to convey meaning, has strong but often monotonous rhyme. Modulation is narrow and direct, collar-grabbing, rather than subtle, textured, and nuanced. Ideas, though profound, goose-step in your face.

Like MTV music, much of modern poetry strikes me as flaccid. The prosody of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins satisfies in a way the visual word games of an e.e. cummings never can. Many, lacking the experience of a robust auditory dimension, have given up on poetry's playing a meaningful role in their lives.

Alexander Pope offers sound advice - in iambic pentameter:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;/ There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again.

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