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The Poet’s Ear

By K. Silem Mohammad


We’ve all heard it said that a given poet has (or doesn’t have, as the case may be) an “ear.” This is not the same thing as having a distinct “voice.” Although both terms are centered around the notion of speech, “voice”—oddly—does not usually have much to do with the actual sound of the voice, but rather with the set of personality characteristics, values, etc. that go into the fashioning of a poetic persona. Sonic considerations may enter incidentally into this conception of voice: for example, an individual poet may typically select a lot of guttural, harsh-sounding words, or use a very elegant, “cultured” register. But how these words actually sound matters less than the subjectivity-effects they produce. The attribution of ear-possession, in contrast, usually entails a claim that the poet is capable of making a more physically measurable, finely-tuned set of distinctions at the level of phonemic articulation.

Another way of making the distinction is to say that voice is about transmission, whereas ear is about reception or receptiveness. This can be confusing, however, because when we say that a poet “has a good ear,” we usually mean that that poet has gone past the stage of mere listening, and has passed the transmission (which the poet has supposedly “heard” in order to create the poem) on to the reader via writing, thus becoming the sender rather than the receiver. Nevertheless, the expression clearly suggests that the significant talent on the poet’s part is one of being able to “hear” what will sound most effective even before it has been physically spoken. In fact, the poem may never be read aloud, and readers will still make judgments about the poet’s ear. The concept thus potentially allows both poet and reader to bypass any literal act of listening: both may establish themselves as having good ears without necessarily ever hearing any actual sounds. It’s tempting to suspect that the entire notion is utterly fictitious, a performative utterance intended to establish credibility. What would go into challenging the assertion that a poet has a good ear? If I say “Tennyson has the finest ear of any poet ever,” how on earth would you prove me wrong? A materialist response might be to say that I have made the error of fetishizing euphony rather than attending to more complex, culturally-driven factors. And this is in fact what I would like to test: the idea that the concept of poetic “ear,” like “voice,” depends on an aestheticized false consciousness.

One often hears workshop participants talking about things like “assonance,” “carefully modulated cadences,” etc., which at one level do point to materially verifiable claims about language, and as such, can be effective in helping student writers develop greater textual dexterity. Too often, of course, such discussions are mere rehearsals of received notions that have fossilized into codified cliches of “literary” style. One poet who is often praised in such terms for facility with aural surfaces is Jorie Graham (a poet, incidentally, who straddles the “mainstream” / “experimental” divide). Here are the first four lines of her poem “Evolution”:

My nakedness is very slow.
I call to it, I waste my sympathy.
Comparison, too, is very slow.
Where is the past?

There are concrete indications of linguistic skill on display here. The vocalic interplay of A’s and O’s, along with the consonantal slide of S’s and N’s, is highly controlled and euphonious. The latticework supporting this musical alternation is that old standby, the iamb. The first line is perfect iambic tetrameter, the second pentameter; the rest of the poem is largely structured around loosened and syncopated variations on the iambic pattern. One might say, however, that the sense of lulling lyricism produced by this language is one that works as much by echoing other, well-known poems as by any innate quality of sound. Theodore Roethke’s villanelle “The Waking” springs to mind, for example: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I learn by going where I have to go.” Note that the relation here is largely at the level of sound; “nakedness” is not really connected to “wake” and “waking” by any thematic thread. The point is that one reason Graham’s poem sounds like poetry is because it … well, sounds like poetry (other poetry). But is this all there is to “having a good ear”? Must it be limited to evoking western canonical literary “music”?

In a future post, I’ll look at some poetry that calls for an extended definition of “ear.”

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 15th, 2013 by K. Silem Mohammad.