Tsitsi Jaji is an associate professor of English and African & African American Studies at Duke University, and author of Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and Pan-African Solidarity (winner of the First Book Award, African Literature Association). She is also author of a chapbook, Carnaval (2014) and a poetry collection, Beating the Graves, (2017), and a forthcoming collection, Mother Tongues, which received the Cave Canem Northwestern Poetry Prize .
Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote “Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo.” His were to be read slowly. We literary critics who are slow readers may find a compensatory gift, a certain quality of attention, well suited to closely reading poetry. For musicians, the analog, poor sight-reading, could be considered a boon: cautiously stumbling through an unfamiliar score yields a hard-won understanding of the contours of melodic and harmonic lines and details in phrasing and a physical sense of a piece’s range. Along the twin paths of ancient Greek’s lyric into modern poetry and music, meter remains a key common term, with all the dangers of a false cognate. However, another musical measure of time, tempo, is more useful for accounting for the varying paces at which text and music are experienced, and for the gifts that slow, belabored encounters offer scholars. The premise of this essay is that when set to music for the voice, the elasticity of a poem’s time scale surfaces, and that there are valuable critical insights to be gained there.[2