Sound, Interrupted

How a tone-deaf economics professor found a new calling in poetry.

Moscow, 1921: Alexander Blok, then perhaps Russia’s premier poet, is sitting in the back row of a poetry reading with his friend, the famed master of children’s verse Kornei Chukovsky. A contemptuous young bard on stage declaims: “Blok is already dead!” At which point, Blok leans over to Chukovsky and whispers, “That’s true. He’s telling the truth, I’m dead.”

Blok tells Chukovsky he simply can’t write anymore. "All sounds have stopped,” says the poet known for composing tightrope poetry with neither net nor bar, forever teetering between hope and despair. “Can't you hear that there are no longer any sounds?”

He died two months later.

I mention this tragedy not to recount one more Russian poet’s inevitable rendezvous with ruin, but to reinforce Blok’s point about the importance of sound.

Rude intrusion: I spent half my life as an economics professor, tone deaf to sound, except the deathless prose of wonky, unicorn fantasies for which the discipline prides itself. How could such a thing happen?

Shocking to relate, I grew up in an atonal atmosphere. I listened to rock ’n’ roll, but only on somebody else’s nickel in jukebox diners. I collected no record albums, rarely turned on the radio. Classical music, I thought, rivaled corsets and bullwhips in the race to antiquity. Music of any kind captivated me almost as much as lawn darts. The ear can be a shamefully ignored organ.

I won’t denigrate my elementary school teachers, who were genuinely concerned with my welfare, but what little poetry I was exposed to didn’t resonate. Or if it did, I wouldn’t have heard it. The finger of fault points to me. Evidently, I just wasn’t listening … until I got to college. There, in a poetry class disguised as a chem lab, students armed with droppers and stoppers took an entire semester to reduce the acidic “My Last Duchess” of Browning to baseness. Fra Pandolf’s hands finally reached out and slapped me awake.

My ear’s rebellion needed no more reinforcements.

Fast forward two decades: … and then, and then … just as I was crossing what might well have been the equator of my life, I met a saucy English professor who peppered her speech with thigh-slappers like carpe diem, ad nauseam, and favete linguis! (shut up!). And she introduced me to … It. (If her ship should pass in the night again, and she runs aground on these rocky words, let me just say: “Ethyl, I am finally compos mentis.”)

By “It,” I mean she sang in two-part poetry: sound and sense. Eventually, she did. First, she had me at ‘Twas brillig…. Hearing her recite her favorite poems, I assumed that she had enlisted Wallace Stevens to describe herself: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea. Come again? “in Just- / spring      when the world is mud- / luscious the little / lame balloonman / whistles                 far and       wee” Where? Wee? It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the words meant. I’d been catapulted skyward by a zaftig, nonstop sound machine. “The sunlight on the garden / Hardens and grows cold, / We cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold.” Pass the smelling salts, Thyllie, this was a language worthy of the seraphim. She read with such infectious brio, I could almost believe Messrs. CarrollStevens, Cummings, and MacNeice, respectively, self-exhumed to applaud.

Ethyl lent me her Norton’s doorstop with the admonition that I begin, after several decades of disuse, putting my slacker right brain through its paces. Thus began our nightly rituals of reading desultory poems to each other, poems that could charm the chill off a tin ear. I can’t say the experience moved me to embrace the viola or the flugelhorn, though I did quit my day job to become a wandering minstrel of sorts. But those first poems began to strum, hum, come to me as the music I had relegated to the benighted. From there it was a short step to a long and endless journey of understanding prosody, and everything else in the poet’s handbag of techniques for producing sound: assonance, alliteration, euphony, meter, and heretofore unheard-of rhyme.

Imagine how reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” ruffled a misspent youth dawdling in the social sciences: “Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast.” And what was I to do with Roethke’s “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow”? Or the triple-tongue-tempest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding….”

Equally smitten with the lions of children’s poetry—Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and lesser lights now all but forgotten—I took to piping down valleys wild with Milne’s “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree” and soon jumped on “a capital ship for an ocean trip (The Walloping Window Blind”). Even “mere verse” like Gelett Burgess’s “The Purple Cow,” Morris Bishop’s “Song of the Pop-Bottlers,” and Eliot’s wildly inventive naming of cats served as an affront to tone-deaf economists, lips firmly pursed, who most likely were innocent of ever having been “young and easy under the apple boughs.” But pity not economists: They don’t know any better. Save compassion for poets such as Blok, who crash into a wall of silence and are denied the sounds that defined their entire lives.

I learned early that Emily Dickinson’s star shone brightest in the constellation of sound singers. (The woman levitated over Amherst, Massachusetts, a century and a half ago, and the mention of her first name alone, like that of “Abe,” brings instant recognition.) As the British poet and critic Clive James wrote: “[She] could enamel the inside of a raindrop.”

Most readers, even non-poets, might recognize the first couplet in her homage to a train: “I like to see it lap the Miles— / And lick the Valleys up.” Lap, lick? Of course. No other verbs could do. But to stop there without reading the full four quatrains of the poem is inexplicably to don earmuffs. I’ll wager you cannot think of a single thing to do in the next minute of your life that is as soothing to the ear as reading the entire poem. One minute. And it’s even odds that the memory of the poem, two hours from now, will linger longer than the memory of sex. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Originally Published: January 15th, 2013

Former Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis grew up in Gary, Indiana and earned a BA at Saint Joseph’s College, an MA at Indiana University, and a PhD in economics at the Ohio State University. Lewis taught in the department of Business, Accounting and Economics at Otterbein College in Westerville,...

  1. January 18, 2013
     Janet F.

    To Ethyl we owe a debt: this essay, the poems and books, such an array, J. Patrick writes, and for poetry itself. To listen deeply and to hear with your heart, poetry of all types is embraced by children who in my experience want to know poetry and take poems to heart. And to answer Dana Gioia, yes, poetry can and does matter. Maybe even more than ever. We should all pipe down the wild valleys with poems on our lips, books and pen in hand and poets in our sight. Thank you, Pat for your measured and inspiring words.

  2. January 19, 2013
     K. Manning

    While I'm glad that J. Patrick Lewis was able to find his way into the realm
    of writing poetry, I found his use of the anecdote about Alexander Blok's
    hearing loss to be a very slight, inappropriate way to open into a
    discussion about poetry appreciation.

    Lewis' attempt to correlate sensorineural hearing loss or other forms of
    hearing impairment/deafness with being, in his words, poetically "tone
    deaf" is offensive.

    I'm disappointed to read this kind of weak article on the Poetry
    Foundation's website.

  3. January 21, 2013
     Alice N.Enter your name

    In response to K. Manning:

    Slight? Not in the slightest. Inappropriate? Not to me. Offensive?
    No! No! No! To the contrary, I thank the Poetry Foundation for
    sharing J. Patrick Lewis' piece. I found it inspiring as well as very