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Poetry Set to Music: A Collaborative Opportunity

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Poems, op. 15. To Helen. Sheet music published by G. Schirmer (New York).
Poems, op. 15. To Helen. Sheet music published by G. Schirmer (New York).

One possible way to engage students with poetry is to explore poems that have been set to music. Consider collaborating with music teachers in your school or community. Ask them to visit your classroom to discuss composing music to accompany lyrics and perhaps to perform pieces you have selected. Alternatively, find students in your classes who play instruments or sing to perform the songs.

Begin with the poem “To Helen,” by Edgar Allan Poe. Read the poem aloud with students. Ask students to:

  • brainstorm words to describe the tone and atmosphere of the poem;
  • discuss what music style would fit the poem’s subject and tone; and
  • select and listen to recordings of a variety of musical instruments that would invoke the tone and atmosphere.

Follow reading and discussing the poem with listening to the piece set to music. If there are many musical students in your classes consider hosting an evening of poetry and music that can include readings and recitations as well as musical performance.

While listening to the piece, ask students to:

  • observe the tone and atmosphere evoked by the music:
    • does the music evoke the mood and tone of the original poem?
    • does the music style align with their earlier discussion?
  • listen for the way the lyrics are enriched or diminished by the music:
    • does the music enhance the power of the poem?
    • does the music detract from the power of the poem?
  • investigate further by looking for contemporary examples of poems set to music by someone other than the poet

Consider using the following poems to supplement the experience of poems set to music:

  • “I Shall Know Why” (text; music), by Emily Dickinson
  • “Resurgam” (text; music), by Emily Dickinson
  • “Wild Nights” (text; music), by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (text; music), by Langston Hughes
  • “Eldorado” (text; music), by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Israfel” (text; music), by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (text; music), by Walt Whitman
  • “Look Down, Fair Moon” (text; music), by Walt Whitman

What poems set to music have you used with students?

Comments (3)

  1. The ultimate: setting to music the original poems students write.

  2. The “Songs of the Victorians” project by Joanna Swafford (Assistant Professor for Interdisciplinary and Digital Teaching and Scholarship at SUNY New Paltz) is another resource for contemporary musical settings of Victorian poetry. Googling the project title will return the webpage as the top result.

  3. A most excellent suggestion. Poetry originated as an oral tradition and the way to maintain focus and attention especially in the current (2017) climate of shorter attention spans is to set the bet and let the music flow. Melody: pick it up from the meter, rhyme, rhythm of the first line or recurrent lines.

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