Brian Boyd


On his book Why Lyrics Last

Cover Interview of April 04, 2012

A close-up

When did you last immerse yourself in a pool of make-believe?  In a television drama, or a film, watched from the sofa or a cinema seat?  A story you read to your children last night, or the novel you settled down with later?  The comic strip in this morning’s newspaper?  A joke you heard at work or around the table?  Chances are that the last fictional story you encountered was not long ago, and the previous one not long before that.

When did you last encounter verse?  Again, probably not long ago, in song or hymn lyrics or in advertising jingles.  Had you lived in Homer’s day, or in Virgil’s, Dante’s, or Chaucer’s, or even in Shakespeare’s or Byron’s, you might have met story and verse together; but more recent ways of telling stories on page and screen make you unlikely to reach for verse when you crave a story. And when did most of us who are not poets or literature teachers or students last read a serious poem, or a book of poems?

“Poetry” has no rhyme in English.  Even for many literature students, the first near-rhyme for “poetry” to leap to mind might well be “lavatory,” somewhere they’d rather not linger.  They just don’t “get” poetry, they confess: verse, what could be worse?

Yet even those who profess not to understand poetry enjoy rhymes in rock songs, punchy rhythms in rap, playful alliterations and puns in advertising and headlines.  They and others enjoyed nursery rhymes, schoolyard chants and rhyming games when they were children, and will pass some of them on to their children.

Like others, I feel confident we can learn more about literature and life by discovering more about the why and how of our minds. How might evolution (the why) and cognition (the how) explain why we love the ingredients of poetry but why so many find the whole dish of literary poetry a little heavy, oversauced, hard to digest?  And why despite that do some poems invite endless re-savoring?