Sound makes sense
Yesterday a student came into my office with a guitar, and he sang me a song. He did so because he had realized the music could convey more than his words could. He wanted a boost behind the piece he’d written for our meeting. I listened to his song (with pleasure: he plays guitar well and has a pleasant voice), but afterwards we talked about how he could bring some of the power he sought from music into his own writing. To help him understand this better, I read him a few poems. I told him to pay attention to what he understood from the poems' sounds.
For many of us, the fact that poets can orchestrate their poems is not news. Plenty of us know that sound can be used, in poetry, to manipulate emotional responses. Still, it was awfully fun to witness my student’s initiation into the joys of poetic sound. Therefore, because I believe there are always people for whom these joys will be news, I’m dedicating today’s post to a few of the poems I love to hear.
The first poem I introduced my student to was Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Windfall,” from her book The Orchard. I read the whole poem and watched his face as the pleasure and surprise grew. He hadn’t known poems could do what Kelly’s poem does. He hadn’t known that sounds could be so well orchestrated by a poet that, even without attending to the narrative, he could fathom how he was meant to feel.
Talking about the poem afterwards, we noted the section of “Windfall” when Kelly introduces us to the density of the landscape she explores: “No one tends the land now. The fences have fallen and the deer grown thick, and the pond lies black, the water slowly thickening, the banks tangled with weeds and grasses.” When I’d spoken the poem to him, he was aware of the fact that my tongue seemed to grow thick and slow just as we came upon the overgrown pond. From the lengths of her sentences and phrases down to her choice and arrangement of words, Kelly dictates how I move through her lines.
Reading another Kelly poem, “Song,” we noted how the poet created a foreboding feeling by piling up ominous “h” sounds at some of the poem’s more troubling moments:
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.
The head called to the body. The body to the head….
Like in a horror film when you can hear the bad guy panting somewhere near (hhuh, hhuh, hhuh) but you don’t know exactly where you’ll encounter him next, Kelly piles on the “h” sounds during this section, and then she distributes them throughout the remainder of the poem just when we might begin to let our guard down. My student had heard this even before he had a way to articulate how he felt. Now he had language to identify his responses.
We talked about Thomas Hardy’s “The Voice,” a poem I’d had him memorize earlier in the semester when he was growing excited about the joys of metrical verse:
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness
Traveling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
We discussed the way the poem’s first three quatrains hold fast to an easy, waltzing rhythm, mimicking the ethereal nature of the poem’s dream. But, as reality rends the dream and the speaker accepts the truth, the poem’s rhythm changes entirely. The student, being familiar with this poem, recognized immediately the shift I alerted him too. He mimicked, dancing his hand then pretending to stumble forward, the way those dactyls and trochees made him feel.
Over the last couple years I have co-edited (with Jeffrey Thomson and Matt O’Donnell) an anthology called From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great. Part of our mission was to highlight poets who make the experience of reading their poems rewarding because they return to poetry’s roots as an instrument for music (or acoustics) and storytelling. We argue that attention to music comes from attention to the tension between the sentence (the measure of meaning) and the line (the measure of music) in the poem and from attention to the manipulation of elements of sound like rhyme and rhythm. There is a level beyond ration, beyond meaning, at which a poem can be experienced. This is the level of purest experience that we associate with our most deeply hardwired senses, with, in the case of music and poetry, sound. These sensory responses, the responses we have to sonic cues separate from and in addition to purely rational responses, can be the source of inspiration and appreciation. Having dedicated so much time to editing an anthology of poems that “sound great” (an anthology designed with classroom use in mind) you might imagine my pleasure at meeting a student who, early in his career as a poet, was looking to figure out how to make his own work as sonically resonant as possible.
Watching my student grow excited about “the soundtrack” behind the poems we read, I thought of Nikki Giovanni’s “Adulthood (for Claudia),” which I first encountered when I was around the same age my student is now. The poem’s list of martyred leaders conjured the sound of automatic rifle fire: “hammarskjold was killed and lumumba was killed and diem was killed and kennedy was killed and malcolm was killed and evers was killed and schwerner, chaney and goodman were killed and liuzzo was killed and stokely fled the country and le roi was arrested and rap was arrested and pollard, thompson and cooper were killed and king was killed and kennedy was killed…” The sense of loss Giovanni describes grew all the more powerful to me as the names of these dead heroes shot off my tongue in rapid fire.
I remember discovering Giovanni’s poem and understanding something I hadn’t understood before. I remember recognizing, in early readings of Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the ebbing, flowing sound water can make against a shore. I remember encountering the breathless rant that was cummings's “next to of course god america I,” and the cat-like sounds of the third stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It was with heady excitement I greeted my growing understanding of the intricacies of the ways sound makes sense.
I saw something similar (and exciting) happening across the desk yesterday as I witnessed my student’s growing recognition that, within his poems, he could create the kind of sonic impact he’d thought he'd have to produce externally.
He wanted to get going immediately. He started by packing away his guitar.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...