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Poetry and Music WEEK 1 Song as Incantation: the Roots of Poetry. “ Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation,... song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us ourselves as

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Poetry and Music


Song as Incantation: the Roots of Poetry


“Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs?

Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation,... song shows

us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us ourselves as

they might be, if we were worthy of the world.”

— Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)


“Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling.

But a song makes you feel a thought.”

— E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg


“ [is] the form in which magic survives down to our day.

...the affinity between music and magic is rooted in their very nature. both, man’s sense of being at one with the world outweighs his

sense of being distinct from it: what links man to man, man to thing,

and thing to thing outweighs what separates them.”

— Victor Zuckerkandl, Man the Musician (1973)


“the origins of music can be traced to man’s anxiety in the face of the hostility

of Nature which he interprets as being due to savage spirits who have to be

appeased with incantations, which can be used both as an offensive and a

defensive weapon.”

— Jules Combarieu, Music and Magic (1909)


Joseph Lycett (ca.1775 – 1828), Aborigines Resting by a Camp Fire

near the Mouth of the Hunter River, Newcastle, NSW


“…birth songs, lullabies, naming songs, toilet

training songs (I want to hear those!), puberty

songs, greeting songs, marriage songs, clan

songs, funeral songs. A Sia Indian who lives in

a pueblo in northern New Mexico said, ‘My

friend, without songs you cannot do anything.’

Without music, the social fabric itself would be

rent, and the links between us would crumble.”

— How Music Works

David Byrne, singer/songwriter, etc. (born 1952)


Gaston Maspero, New Light on Ancient Egypt (1908):

“The human voice is the instrument par excellence of the priest and of the enchanter. It is the voice

that seeks afar the Invisibles summoned, and it makes the necessary objects into reality. Every one of

the sounds it emits has a peculiar power which escapes the notice of the common run of mortals, but

which is known to and made use of by the adepts. One note irritates, appeases, or summons the spirits;

another acts on the bodies. By combining the two are formed those melodies which the magicians intone

in the course of their evocations. But as every one has its peculiar force, great care must be taken not to

change their order or substitute one for the other. One would thus expose oneself to the greatest



“…you need to do something to

produce your voice, …you need

to do something to heighten your

language, to distinguish the

activity that you’re taking part in

from daily conversation—that’s

basic to poetry.”

James Fenton


“If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem:

a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always

remembers that it was an oral art before it was a

written art. It remembers that it was first song.”

— from a lecture on "The Divine Comedy," (1977)

Jorge Luis Borges, (1899 –1986)


“Poetry begins to atrophy when

it gets too far from music.”

— The ABC of Reading

Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972)


“They quote Rossini’s remark, ‘Give me

a laundry-list and I will set it,’ unaware,

apparently, that a laundry-list, or any list

for that matter, has a poetic value, and

one which is exceptionally translatable

into musical terms.”

— Introduction to An Elizabethan Song Book,

edited by Auden and Chester Kallman (1955)

W. H. Auden, (1907 – 1973)


Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996)

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)


“…in certain tribes the most celebrated songs are sung by people who do not

understand the words. For the poet, the words of the song may very well have

an independent signification; for others they only have a value when joined to

a melody. Often, in fact, the sense of a song is sacrificed, without hesitation,

to its form."

— Jules Combarieu, Music and Magic


Orphée (Jean Marais) listening to the radio in Death’s Rolls Royce.

Still from Orphée by Jean Cocteau (1950)


“To withdraw myself from myself

has ever been my sole, my entire,

my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”

Lord Byron (1788 – 1824) in Albanian

dress, painted by Thomas Phillips


“No one is a poet unless he has felt

the temptation to destroy language

or create another one, unless he has

experienced the fascination of non-

meaning and the no less terrifying

fascination of meaning that is


Octavio Paz (1914 – 1998)


“...a very odd song, which... became very

popular because it [the lyric] sounded so

strange, nearly as obscure and

unintelligible as the music itself,

but for this very reason was

incomprehensively fascinating

and delightful as a dream to one awake.”

— from the novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen

Novalis (1772 – 1801), poet, author and

philosopher of German Romanticism


Anthropologist Franz Boas (1858 – 1942)

Shown posing for a figure in US Natural History

Museum exhibit entitled Hamats\'a coming

out of secret room


“Rap music was invented in

England by Dame Edith Sitwell

in 1922 when, perched atop a

stepladder, she recited the

poems of Facade through a

megaphone over the musical

accompaniment of her

homeboy Sir William Walton.

The words to the poems were

chosen for their sound, colour

and rhythm, and make very

little sense. Having said that,

they conjure up a sense of

wonderment and weirdness –

a bit like De La Soul. ”

— John Moore on the

Guardian Music Blog


“Nobody comes to give him his rum but the

Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum”

—from When Sir Beelzebub, a lyric from Facade


Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

I\'ve read, that things inanimate have mov\'d,

And, as with living Souls, have been inform\'d,

By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.

The Mourning Bride, (1697)

William Congreve, English playwright and poet,

(1670 –1729)


“Music is the pleasure

the human mind

experiences from

counting without being

aware that it is counting.”

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646 - 1716


Cymatics — “When a bow is drawn along the edge [of a metal plate covered with fine sand]

there appear in the sand nodal lines and curious geometrical figures. Nature is not a musician

and yet she composes : she has a plan and a method ; and she obeys inflexible laws.”

Music , Its Laws and Evolution, by Jules Combarieu (1910)


Rushdie and Cohen at the PEN New England Awards

for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, February, 2012


Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry backstage at the PEN New England Awards

for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, February, 2012


Iron plate with an order 6 magic square in Arabic numbers

from China, dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).


Page from Athanasius Kircher\'s Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1653) from a treatise on magic squares

Magic squares of order 3 through 9, assigned to the seven planets, and described as means to attract the

Influence of planets and their angels (or demons) during magical practices.


Permutational poem by (Lady) Su Hui (C4th CE). The poem can be read forward

or backwards, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This arrangement allows for

2848 different readings.


Georges Perec, plan for his novel, Life, A User’s Manual (1978)

Asked, in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1977, why he resorted to such

contortions for the making of fiction, Perec replied: ‘Je me donne des règles

pour être totalement libre.’


“Music is true.  An octave is a mathematical

reality.  So is a 5th. So is a major 7th chord.
And I have the feeling that these have

emotional meanings to us, not only because

we\'re taught that a major 7th is warm and

fuzzy and a diminished is sort of threatening

and dark, but also because they actually do

have these meanings. It\'s almost like it\'s a

language that\'s not a matter of our choosing,

it\'s a truth.  The laws of physics apply to

music, and music follows that. So it really lifts

us out of this subjective, opinionated human

position and drops us into the cosmic picture

just like that.”

James Taylor, American singer-songwriter, 1948 -