I’m fascinated, haunted, and provoked by the fugue form, and how it enables us to work around (and through) a poem’s texture.
Simply, a fugue is a piece of music that uses interwoven melodies based on a single musical idea. To compose a fugue is to involve a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and which recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
There’s some wicked, beautiful friction that develops between a traditional form like the fugue when used to carry nontraditional subject matter—a capacity to stir and jar the reader by overlaying sounds, musical effects, and impressions. There is the shadow of a whispered chorus, the power of subtle moves, the undertow of implications.
Music and lyric develop in tandem if you bring the breath of them into the same space, if you encourage them to converse with each other. I have a few ideas that only begin to scratch the surface of all possible poemings in this marvel…
1. Work the background baroque.
Fugues rose to prominence during the Baroque Period, ca. 1600-1750. They were based on an earlier idea from the Renaissance Period called imitative polyphony, where multiple singers would sing the same melody at different times. The melody of the first voice is replicated by subsequent voices.
The most strict form of this type of imitation is the canon. In a canon, the original melody is emulated precisely and without variant in every voice. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is a simple and well-known canon. I love thinking of nursery rhymes with all the bravado and established dignity of canonical forms.
The fugue is a more complicated version version of the imitative polyphonic form. It is less rigid and strict than the canon: different voices begin by imitating each other, but gradually diverge and become unique.
Another word for polyphony is counterpoint, meaning a style and method of writing polyphony that was used during the Baroque. When someone talks about counterpoint, they are talking about a specific type of polyphony. Often counterpoint and polyphony are used like synonyms (i.e. contrapuntal texture = polyphonic texture).
In a fugue, this idea that is passed around is called a subject.
Experiment with a baroque texture and language that juggles temporal spacing of a subject through repetition and homonymy. Don’t be afraid to occupy the margins or alter the white space by playing with diptych or triptych to amplify or juxtapose voices.
2. Develop episodic movements.
An alternate type of polyphony is non-imitative or free polyphony, which features distinct melodic lines overlapping. In a fugue, this is called an episode, and is used to transition to a new section and modulate keys. Free polyphony is common in traditional New Orleans jazz and in the early polyphony of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods.
In the non-imitative polyphonic texture, independent voices are each unique and do not copy each other. "Hotter Than That" performed by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, is an example of New Orleans jazz that begins with a section of free polyphony followed by improvised solos (trumpet, clarinet, voice, then trombone).
Listen to this organ version of Bach’s Fugue in G Minor. Note the short episode that pops up around 1:10. Note how the sense of polyphony is also created through the usage of a countermelody laid over subject—you can hear this at almost any point in the piece where there are two overlapping parts.
3. Excavate the etymology.
There are so many layers to a word, beginning in origins and thickening into contemporary connotation. Fugue, for example, is borrowed from French fugue, from Italian fuga (“flight, ardor”), from Latin fuga (“ act of fleeing”), from fugere (“to flee”); compare Ancient Greek φυγή (phugḗ).
I used this juxtapositioning to build pressure into “Proper Fugue”, which flirted with the Romanian meaning of fugue, proximate to the Latin and Italian one. Consider the connotations of words like flying, running, wing in a fugue—and spend time in that word space to see what emerges.
4. Listen to a Bach piano fugue obsessively.
Listen to a piano fugue by Bach (preferable performed by Glenn Gould). Now listen to it again. Listen to this fugue on repeat while writing a poem about a room that three people just left. Create a sense of those persons still in the room—the relationships, the energy between them, their dissonances. Let the music alter your tonal range.
Alternately, edit a limp poem while listening to your Bach fugue on repeat. The repetitive listening is critical—it brings things up from the surface somehow, and expands the musical progression of the poem.
5. Study Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue”.
"Todesfuge" (translated into English as Death Fugue) is a German language poem written by the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan around 1945 and first published in 1948. It is "among [Celan's] most well-known and often-anthologized poems". When Celan published it, he was criticized for its cadence and lyrical finesse by some who believed its beauty undercut the cruelty of the Shoah.
Read Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” and study how he works with the form. Write a Todesfugue on a topic that bears witness to contemporary horrors.
6. Explore the cognitive science of fugue states.
Dissociative fugue usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. It can be a facet of disassociative amnesia.
Borrowing from the psychiatric condition of fugue state, free-write a poem in which loss of memory tangles with loss of selfhood and identity to produce multi-tonal dynamics and unmoored voices in a poem. Aim to make it one long stanza (to challenge yourself to focus on your use of language rather than white space) or go the prose poem route.
7. Fugue through the fabulous.
Lewis Lapham: “To describe a woman as fabulous is to say she is nowhere to be seen.”
In this sense, fabulousness functions as an eraser—like black or white, it gives us little to imagine apart from personal connotation. It builds no tactics tension into description. Touch is notable for the difference it reveals—the surprise of wind lipping your nape. One could argue that someone who doesn’t feel the touch wasn’t touched in a meaningful or poetic sense.
A fugue about the fabulous—a “Fabulous X Fugue”—would use the polyphony of the fugue form and its flexibility to render something fabulous (and complex) without once whispering the F word.
8. Score the poem.
The line between a melody and a lyric depends on the presence of certain symbols, or musical notation. Familiarize yourself with the musical notations below. Learn how to hear them, see them, say them. Imagine how they take up space in a poem. Work them into slant rhymes.
Write a poem that uses the musical notations as a key. For example, a line could read:
I left him in > streetlights, the dim fold of dusk.
where “>” reads “diminuendo”. The challenge is to use these notations in a way that allows the poem to be read in two voices, where one reading corresponds with a blank for each symbol (assuming the reader lacks musical knowledge) and the other reading inserts the symbolized word.
If you’ve never wasted a weekend poring through Italian musical terms and matching them to pieces you love, make time. Sempre staccato, for example, means “always detached”. Isn’t that incredible? Can’t you feel its solemnity in the stanza, in the repetitions of a word or a syllable, in the frisklessness of it?