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The Music of Poetry

a talk by pianist Michael Arnowitt

“The Music of Poetry” is a talk by pianist Michael Arnowitt exploring the musical aspects of poetry, song lyrics, and literature. The presentation offers a musician’s insights on the elements of sound and time in literary composition and the parallels Arnowitt hears between the creations of great writers and the music of past and present classical composers and jazz and pop songwriters.

In his talk, Michael Arnowitt will speak on how poets and lyricists build momentum, tension, and resolution, why a writer chooses a particular word or orders words in a certain way to create a musical rhythm for the syllables of a line, and how different types of vowel and consonant sounds are selected and emphasized to give a literary passage a unique color.

The talk will also explore interesting ways poets use punctuation, unexpected sudden short lines, and added white space on the page to give a sense of time and pacing in writing. Readers who have been baffled by modern poets’ quirky one word lines and other visual oddities will be offered a way to better understand these curiosities through analogies to music.

A highlight of the program are all the superb excerpts Michael Arnowitt has chosen to share for his discussion examples, sure to please lovers of language. Literary quotations are drawn from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Tempest, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” a bit of Americana from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, e.e. cummings’ “In just-spring,” and “H2O Flow,” a poem written by the singer Carol Maillard of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. For lighter fare Michael Arnowitt will present some humorous passages from James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake” where the author created one of a kind word plays based on his amazing ear for the sounds of words. Musical examples will include the jazz standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” by Rodgers and Hart and pop songs by Joni Mitchell and the Beatles.


Approximate length of presentation: 1 hour 30 minutes

This topic could also be made into a short course or series of seminars, where Michael would add to the above discussions of Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal,” the Star-Spangled Banner, Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be,” “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the Beatles’ “Come Together” and Gertrude Stein’s poem “If I Told Him.”

Testimonials from past sponsors

“Thank you for a lovely Sunday afternoon event here in Biddeford. I hope you could tell how engaged the audience was throughout your talk/demonstration. Personally, I found myself remembering many of your examples and themes this week, both listening to reading aloud and in casual conversation. I am sure that is happening for other people who attended as well. I appreciate your presenting an unusual topic in a creative format, and am very glad that circumstances brought you to Maine.”
       – McArthur Library, Biddeford, Maine

“Thank you so much for the program ‘The Music of Poetry’ last week at the Lanpher Library. We’ve had wonderful responses. I’ve suggested your program to the staff at the school where my daughters attend as a possible staff development training. I enjoyed the variety of examples you used to help audience members understand the ways you hear the intentionality of poets and lyricists’ use of words, timing and rhythm. I highly recommend this program to other public libraries. Your program is interesting, humorous and very informative. Thank you so much.’
       – Lanpher Memorial Library, Hyde Park