The Rallentando Effect

Why are some poems difficult to read? Last week we looked at my own struggle with poetry that I had trouble figuring out right away, along with Marianne Moore’s reminder that “we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.” But even if we keep reading, we will always find other poems that will seem impenetrable to us at first.

But what if this is an attribute instead of a defect of poems?

In his essay, On Difficulty, George Steiner borrows an idea from music theory and applies it to poems that slow us down:

The underlying manoeuvre is one of rallentando. We are not meant to understand easily and quickly. Immediate purchase is denied us. The text yields its force and singularity of being only gradually. In certain fascinating cases, our understanding, however strenuously won, is to remain provisional. There is to be an undecidability at the heart, at what Coleridge called the inner penetralium of the poem.

I’ve been trying to think of a good example of rallentando in music, but whatever we listen to will come after a movement or a full piece. Here’s Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina which slowly fades in the end. Sound off in the comments with your favorite examples of rallentando, both in music and poetry.


Stay tuned–poetry month isn’t over yet! We’re going to have posts on poetic failures the next two Fridays of the month.

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