Let’s Write in Music 3-A U-Turn expressed in Poetry and Music

Like so many others who dabble in the arts, I am a multi-faceted dabbler. Born into a very musical family, I soon followed suit.  My professional musician Father who wanted an in-house accompanist egged me on.  It is impossible for me to separate music from poetry.  I have not tortured students with the following suggestions. I did encourage them, however, to write poems with the freeness and rhythm of jazz. (That lesson comes later.)

In graduate school, I read the poem, A Toccata of Galuppie’s by Robert Browning.  Browning played piano and uses musical terms to good effect in this poem.  This link takes you to the poem online: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173033.  In his poetic toccata, Browning captures the rhythms and mood of a toccata.  According to the online Merriam-Webster the following is a definition of a toccata:  a musical composition usually for organ or harpsichord in a free style and characterized by full chords, rapid runs, and high harmonies.  The less formal definition states that the word is a noun and is a piece of music for the piano or a similar instrument that is played very quickly.  Read Browning’s poem out loud notice how ‘quickly’ it reads.  He waits until stanza VII to use musical terms of the sort that shows he knows his way around theory.

For those who want to know more about a toccata read on.  For the rest of you skip ahead to the section marked in bold.

The following is a link to Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor played on the organ.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FXoyr_FyFw

The performance is a bit slow for me.  However, it is played on a massive organ in a large cathedral.  The organist has to allow for huge delay and each note sounds longer because of the vastness of both the organ’s size and the size of the cathedral.  (Yes, I played ‘the beast’ as the organ is fondly called.)  What you’re seeing in the video:  A four manual organ or four divisions-the bottom keyboard is the choir, next up is the great, next is the swell (the great and swell are what a typical smaller organ would have) next is the solo division and for the feet the pedal division.  The various divisions can be coupled together.  If you’re curious you can go the link below.


If you’re curious about the organ played in the video go to the following link for good details.  http://www.sydneytownhall.com.au/grand-organ.asp

For those of you who skipped, read now.

T.S. Eliot explored the connections between musical form and poetry in several of his poems.  Surfing the web you can find several discussions of the possible links between Eliot’s Four Quartets and Beethoven’s later string quartets. I’m not going into that here.  I want to focus on an Eliot poem that’s not as well known, Coriolan I – Triumphal March. The link below is to the Eliot poem.   http://www.magyarulbabelben.net/works/en/Eliot,_T._S.-1888/Coriolan_I_-_Triumphal_March?interfaceLang=en

For the curious more about Eliot, Shakespeare and Coriolanus.  My discussion of using poetic forms in my poetry is indicated in bold.


The previous link will take you to a discussion of Eliot’s critique of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. However what interests me is that Beethoven wrote a Coriolan Overture.  Follow the link below to hear it.  Have fun read Eliot’s beginning along with the Beethoven overture and you’ll see the rhythmic link between the two.


Combining Musical Forms and Poetry 

What follows is an example of my varied attempts at using ‘music’ in poetic form. I debated about including the following set of poems.  They are a set of my poems that most closely follow a musical form.  I was thinking more organ piece than orchestral.  The tempos are marked.  The last poem is not as musical as the first two but acts as a chorale to pull the threads together.  The second movement is a fugue and follows the ‘rule’ of a statement of the main theme.  The theme is then repeated in part and with fragments in a different order from the original statement. The language of the poem includes words from the communion liturgy.  Mine is rather a free fugue as suits the subject matter.  That subject matter is why only one section of this was included in my master’s thesis.

Some Background

My immediate family knew of the  experience that led to these poems but no other members did including my elderly parents.  At the time of this poem, my family including three sons lived in a large house on 1/3 acre of land all landscaped.  The care of that yard was very time consuming and we usually hired outside gardeners.  The person now employed was fairly young, married with three children of his own.  He was not that much older than my oldest son.  I was used to being friendly with people who helped us and thought nothing of his friendliness.  One day he asked for a drink of water.  I invited him in and gave him a glass.  Then the unraveling began.  To be brief, I found myself pinned to the floor.  Knowing I was in deep trouble my mind splintered.  Part of me was screaming.  The other more rational side won, “I can handle this.  I’m a Mills woman. I can do this.” I had years ago decided that I would follow the advice in an article that suggested if unsure of your physical strength try looking an attacker in the eye and getting him to see you as a person.  So I got a hand free, checked my watch opened my mouth and out popped this, “Oh I’m sorry.  I don’t have time for this right now.  I’m meeting the pastor for lunch in 10 minutes.  If you’ll just let me up, I’ll check my calendar and make an appointment.” He let me up.  I checked my calendar.  Informed him I was very booked up.  Sent him on his way.  Picked up my purse, put on my dark glasses and drove to church.  Took one look at the church secretary and burst into tears.  She quickly passed me off to the pastor.  Now this poor man was single and I don’t think hysterical women were his favorite things.  But he soothed me and he and I and the associate pastor left for lunch to discuss our new contemporary worship.  In the middle of lunch, Pastor K started to laugh.  He really thought Hollywood could use my unorthodox approach. .

When I got home from lunch, the man in question had gotten into the house, tracked in leaves and played a tape I used to play all the time.  The next morning he showed up on the front porch with a machete to ‘trim’ the vines.  He was accosted by the men of the family and told to never come back.

The Poems

This event threw me into an unexpected U-Turn. My safe world had been turned upside down and I needed to find some way to gain control over an event that threatened to take over my mind.   I had been experimenting with how best to use musical forms in poetry.  I think this 3 part Sonata provided the mental challenge I needed to stop my mind from endlessly playing the moments that had infiltrated life.



Cacaphony of the Winter Wind

Allegro Agitato


late autumn hitchhikers,

prophecy rising wind

w h e e l i n g into winter

end  over  end.


“Is  that the wind?  Branches   tap     tapping?

Or is someone sneaking in the door?”


R   o   a   r                 of storm

wakes the        witching wind.

Screams spill from my mouth.

Trunks, raw saw toothed shattered birches,

echo my cries.

An unlikely pair, we court in howling unity.

Two     unresolved      dissonances     wedded.


Matchmaker wind, topple the lines that shine the light.

Darkness is right

for a  world d i v o r c e d  from  o r d e r.


Soul in Fuga


A cup of cold water tumbles me

he asked for a drink

Here by the river I rest

my two heads  still talking

one to the river, one to me

i talk to the river it soothes my soul

he left before his attack was done

why don’t I feel I won

River   flowing to the sea has anyone diverted you

i have been i let him in   he asked for a drink

A cup of cold water tumbles me

he could be my son

Winter river   icy flow how could i have been so dumb

he is young

Numb  me river  icy flow

could be my son

inside my head he tumbles me

now   home is not safe

A cup of cold water  winter river  on my soul

home   i do not want to be in that place  numb me   icy flow

There is mercy

Winter river   was that you sounding in my ear

in that place   i hear tap  raps  dragging over head

I take away the world

            In this place   i can be numb

The lamb of God

            yes   a lamb easily led and dumb

I give a cup of peace

                        lamb  are you the river flowing

Drink of it

                        i drank a numbing cup

I have mercy


The Mirror Whispers

A Poet’s Conclusion


On the bedroom wall a picture hangs.

A solitary lady, reading,

sits on a couch of meadow grass

under a tree-pushing-spring

whose falling blossoms soften gnarled roots.

Picnickers loll on a wooded hill.


Mirror lying  on the dresser top

beckons in the whispering air,

All is upside down in my single eye.


See, the man leaves the hill and picnickers behind.

Roots tear from the meadow grass.

Gnarled arms shake the blossoms loose.

The man springs the trap

in his momentum to the meadow down

fells the solitary lady to a bed of thorns.

from Janice DeRuiter, “A Child of the Fire” © 1990 , Mills College

About Winding Stream Press

Janice DeRuiter Eskridge, M.F.A. is a poet who worked for over a decade as a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools. Helen Shoemaker, Ph.D. L.M.F.T. is a university professor who teaches in the areas of child development and counseling. She is also a therapist in private practice.
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1 Response to Let’s Write in Music 3-A U-Turn expressed in Poetry and Music

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