Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Pat Pattison Has To Say

Pat Pattison, songwriting professor at Berklee School of Music (who also teaches poetry there and has a background in literary criticism) just spoke in an interview about the differences between writing for the page versus writing for the ear. (He’s in my book and will be writing on all of this in more detail.) It’s a wonderful interview and hits upon craft and measure in ways most people understand but can’t articulate. Here’s just one small example of what he said, and if you like this, read the rest of this little gem at

“Since the end of a line in poetry is a visual cue, a poet can end a line, yet let the content continue on to the next line, creating tension, but not confusion:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Robert Frost –“Birches”

The tension between line 3’s ending and the idea continuing into the next line feels like the girls are actually tossing their hair…

The end of a lyric line has a sonic cue—the end of a melodic phrase. Because the song is aimed at the ear, when a lyricist tries to carry a thought into the next melodic phrase, it usually creates confusion, since there is a disconnect between the melodic roadmap and grammatical structure.”


  1. After first hearing Pat discuss this difference I've been interested in the concept of how the breath relates to line and phrase--both musical and poetic. Of course in music the singer must breathe as some point so it forces a pause which tends to define a phrase and is usually at the end of a musical/lyrical phrase. But I've noticed that many poets put the place where you would naturally breathe in the middle of a line. Galway comes to mind.

    I have no idea whether this is significant. This is one of my favorite poetry recordings much to the annoyance of people who have to hear my imitation of it, and I've noticed that Pat's example is very clear when you listen to the places that Frost himself breaths in relation to the line.

  2. Oh, I love that audio of Frost reading this poem as well. It wasn't until I heard him read the poem that I started to fall in love with it. There's a darkness in this poem that colors everything with a melancholy tone that's most explicit with the lines: "It's when I'm weary of considerations/ and life is too much like a pathless wood.../ I'd like to get away from earth awhile/ and then come back to it and begin again."

  3. When I was in Boston and working insane hours on the campaign I would start to get an itch to hear that poem--pretty good sign I needed a say off. I know the poet as wise one may be a worn out or incomplete notion, but I still need some comfort when I am weary of consideration.