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:

…Some boys
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.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2009

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...

  1. April 9, 2009
     Paul Squires

    There is no doubt in my mind that a return to a more overt musicality in poetry will contribute greatly to a rise in the number of non-poet readers. I have a question that has intrigued me for many years. Why do minor chords sound so sad?

  2. April 9, 2009
     Camille Dungy


    You might find this web site intriguing:\r\r


  3. April 9, 2009
     thomas brady


    Minor keys sound melancholy for purely mathematical reasons: the harmonic ratios of minor chords are slightly less proportional than their major counterparts. The key phrase is 'slightly less proportional,' for the discord of sadness has no existence except has a slight, or minor, falling off in relation to happiness. Melancholy is actually sweeter than happiness, and thus "minor chord music" can sweep one away almost like a drug addiction; in fact, all aspects of human psychology and human sense experience and human addiction manifest themselves in music. This is why music can sound more profound than our actual selves, even though we are talking about a combination of a few discrete sounds. It's quite amazing, really. D major sounds 'happy' and D minor sounds 'sad,' but now it makes the mind reel to think, 'wait a minute, D major is 'happy?' That's absurd! How can a *chord* be 'happy?' Such contemplation takes us over a magic threshold into a wonderfully solid-yet-liquid symbolism.\r


  4. April 9, 2009
     thomas brady

    "I have never yet come across a final, comprehensive, and satisfactory account of the difference between poetry and prose. We can distinguish between prose and verse, and between verse and poetry; but the moment the intermediate term *verse* is suppressed, I do not believe that any distinction between prose and poetry is meaningful." T.S. Eliot\r


    I just want to make a very small point.\r

    The passage you quoted from Kelly’s “Windfall” features words such as 'thick,’ 'thickening,’ 'banks’ and 'tangled. ’ There is a whole science of how word-origins and word-sounds correspond to physical properties which those words describe. It is unique to *words* like 'thickening’ and 'tangled’ that they sound like what they describe; you aren’t *really* describing a function of Kelly’s *poetry* then; it is not her *poetry* that makes a swamp seem thick; it is the word 'thick’ that makes the swamp seem 'thick.’ I know that poets need all the help they can get these days, but Kelly describing a swamp in *prose* would likely choose the same words as Kelly describing a swamp in her *poetry*–there’s no difference, really, and yet you may be giving your students the false idea that it is the poetry which is performing this marvel. Poets can use these words skillfully, but there’s nothing preventing the writer of prose from doing exactly the same thing.\r

    The verse of Hardy, of course, is a different matter.\r


  5. April 9, 2009
     noah freed

    Actually, there's a whole science devoted to, among other things, debunking the ridiculous notion that there is a relation between words and the physical properties of the things they describe. It's called linguistics. You can start with Saussure. (Onomatopoeia is a category precisely because the words it describes are inventions that defy this rule.) Since the words for "thick" and your other examples do not "sound like" the properties they describe in other languages (they do not do so in English either, without wishful thinking), you'd think this point was obvious.

  6. April 9, 2009
     Jack Conway

    Suffice to say some poets use music to sustain their poetry;Dylan (Bob) and Leonard Cohen come to mind.\r

    And some musicians use poetry to sustain their music:\r
    Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday" comes to mind.\r

    Imagine (no pun intended) if they had released that song ("Yesterday") with its original verse, "Ham and Eggs."\r

    There is an excellent book about how the English language developed called The Stories of English by David Crystal. \r

    "English is often called an "agglomerative" language, which means it has absorbed words from many different languages. Those words often kept the spelling of their original language, but have come to be pronounced differently (often because English speakers were unaware of the correct pronunciation after a word's introduction)." \r

    and the Smithsonian has an onging project (for younger students of poetry) regarding this:\r\r

    Didn't Vachel Lindsay come pretty close to developing the music of the word in "The Congo"?\r

    "Walk with care, walk with care,\r
    Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,\r
    And all of the other\r
    Gods of the Congo,\r
    Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.\r
    Beware, beware, walk with care,\r
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.\r
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,\r
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,\r
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,\r

  7. April 9, 2009
     thomas brady


    Let me get this straight.\r

    You reject, then, what Camille says about how 'my tongue seemed to grow thick and slow just as we came upon the overgrown pond'?\r

    Here's her whole paragraph:\r

    "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."\r

    Are you saying words like 'thickening' and 'tangled' do not make the tongue slow down?\r

    'Loose, slippery, slide, slip, etc' (The 's' sound literally has the tongue 'slide' in one's mouth)\r

    'Stop, stump, stunted, stuck, still, etc' (The 't' sound after the 's' literally 'stops' the tongue.)\r

    Sure, there are many exceptions, but what I (and Camille) have noted is not really that unusual. \r

    My chief point was that prose makes as much use of this phenomeon as poetry does.\r


  8. April 9, 2009
     noah freed

    Duh, what Camille wrote sure don't lead to the positing of a non-arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, which is what you said.

  9. April 10, 2009
     Annie Finch

    I think what Thomas meant is that alliteration and onomatopoeia are not unique to poetry. Prose can use them just as much.\r

    Same with "the lengths of her sentences and phrases" and "her choice and arrangement of words." Syntax, sentence rhythm, and diction are all just as operative in prose as in poetry.\r

    So Camille was really awakening the student to the power of effective literary writing, rather than to the power of poetry per se. \r

    Is that a correct interpretation, Thomas?

  10. April 11, 2009
     thomas brady



    Thank you.\r


  11. April 11, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Annie said: "Camille was really awakening the student to the power of effective literary writing, rather than to the power of poetry per se."\r

    This was, indeed, my mission. "Windfall" is actually written as a prose block. Make what you want of that. The point was that a student in a POETRY class came to me trying to heighten the power of his own POEMS. As I wrote about the experience on the POETRY foundation website I wanted to talk about the pleasure of watching someone familiarize himself with the powerful, musical potential of written LANGUAGE as several poets employed it in poetry that didn't need a soundtrack. Sure, great language shows up in prose all the time. Great musicians can also be great lyricists and great poets can also sometimes enlist actual musical instruments. I'm not refuting any of those facts.

  12. April 18, 2009
     Abby Millager

    re: minor keys being sad\r

    Is this not cultural? Long ago, I hired a brass quintet for my wedding ceremony. My mother and I went to listen to them play so we could all decide on which pieces of music to use. They played what they thought would be good. All of it was in minor keys. My mom and I were looking at each other thinking, this all sounds like dirges. We suggested maybe the musicians could play stuff in major keys. They said okay, but looked flummoxed. Later I figured out, duh, they happened to be Jewish musicians, and that was they type of music that would normally be played at a Jewish wedding, and it obviously wasn't meant to be sad. So I wonder here about nature vs nurture in finding minor keys sad.

  13. April 25, 2009

    Camille Dungy, what a delightful blog entry. I read it with attention to every turn and not just scanning, looking to get the logic of the argument.\r

    Lately I have found myself, and once again, thinking along similar lines. Your title starts out this way: sound makes sense. The vector I've taken is maybe slightly different: sound bodies out sense. Somebody has mentioned Saussure and the modernist or post-modernist (or whatever) linguistic critique of poetry and, for lack of a better term, word value. I confess I tend to find the linguist's critique of poetry lacking, since, reductive. What I mean is that poetry ain't just a bundle of little particulated out packets of energy. But this is old news. Charles Olson stated the case well enough back in 1950, or was it '51, when he talked about the field energy poetry creates.\r

    There is, as you suggest, a sound-sense poetry effects. The logic of which brings us all back to early English poetry, or before the language got Continentalized following that famous invasion of England in 1066. (I do still love the alliterative Green Knight poem and the even older Anglo-Saxon Seafarer poem.) But this is an aside.\r

    What you say is true. Sound makes sense. To paraphrase Eliot in a twisted sort of way, it just might be the poetry sense that passeth understanding, nes pas? And so I've been coming back to Hopkins lately and again. Specifically, to his ideas concerning sprung rhythm involving the hovering stresses, and lines roved over, and those delightful outrides gluing one line to the next quietly. This is not the stuff your article speaks to exactly. You talk about sound making sense. I guess I figure that, rhythmically, sound bodies out sense too.\r