In an essay about the relationship between poetry and music, Claudia Emerson writes, “We all know that poetry is not one thing; the spectrum from lyric to narrative in the category of ‘poem’ is vast and encompasses much; so, too, the spectrum of formal to freer verse. The same goes for song, for music itself.”
The following activities have been adapted from Teach This Poem: “The Voice of God” by Crystal Williams. They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.
Warm-up: Write down the name of your favorite vocalist. Think of the most unique words you can to describe their voice and write those down. Share your writing with a partner.
Listen to the audio of Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” twice. The first time simply listen all the way through. The second time write down words and images that you think of when you hear her sing. You should be able to connect these thoughts directly to a part of the song that you heard. If you need to listen more closely, you may listen to the audio one more time.
Read “The Voice of God” by Crystal Williams silently, then write down the words and phrases that jump out at you. If you’re working with a partner, have them read the poem aloud and write down any additional words and phrases that jump out at you.
Share the words and phrases you wrote to describe what you heard in the song and the words and phrases that you noticed in the poem. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
Based on evidence from the poem, what are the many items to which Crystal Williams compares the voice of Aretha Franklin? How do you think the speaker in the poem feels about Franklin’s voice? How does the poem make you feel about her music? Is this the way you felt when you listened, or is it different?
Write a poem about your favorite vocalist using the unique descriptive words you identified in the warm-up.
Poet and novelist Nathaniel Mackey was born in 1947 in Miami, Florida. He received a BA degree from Princeton University and a PhD from Stanford University. Mackey is known for his jazz poetry, as well as his literary criticism.
His books of poetry include Blue Fasa (New Directions, 2015); Nod House (New Directions, 2011); Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), which won the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry; Eroding Witness (University of Illinois Press, 1985), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; and Four for Trane (Golemics, 1978). He also edits the magazine Hambone.
The poet Robin Blaser has called Mackey's work “a brilliant renewal of and experiment with the language of our spiritual condition and a measure of what poetry gives in trust—‘heart’s/meat’ and the rush of language to bear it.”
Nathaniel Mackey has received numerous awards including a Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship. He is the Reynolds Price Professor of English at Duke University and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007. Mackey currently lives in Durham, North Carolina.
A ballad a plot-driven song with one or more characters and often constructed in quatrain stanzas. A typical ballad does not tell the reader what’s happening, but rather shows the reader what’s happening, describing each crucial moment in the trail of events ending in a dramatic conclusion.
To convey that sense of emotional urgency, the ballad is often constructed in quatrain stanzas, each line containing as few as three or four stresses and rhyming either the second and fourth lines, or all alternating lines.
Read more about ballads, then write your own in quatrains with alternating, rhymed lines.