Words That Make Music

The Foley Poetry contest approaches, with entries accepted between Jan. 1 and March 31. I know how the outpouring of poems will eventually seem like what Robert Frost describes in After Apple Pickingthe rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in. (The picker admits he is overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.)

What do I want to say now to improve the harvest? Mostly I want to observe, in the face of relaxed habits, that a decent paragraph of prose is not necessarily a poem. Typography can spread out a text attractively on the page, but that doesnt necessarily make it a poem. Besides pleasing visually, the poem should please the ear. Its intelligent design has to include, above all, a discernible music, some evident or subtle way that the words, phrases and lines are knit together for the ear.

This concern for regularities of sound does not rule out flashes of imagination, eloquence, wit and insight, which are the life blood of poems. But it is a reminder of the ears love of pattern, and that poetic artistry lies in elements, small or large, that repeat. In the older English verse, poetic form meant metricsa controlled alternation of stressed and unstressed syllablesand, except for blank verse, rhyme. Even now, songs, hymns, blues couplets and nursery rhymes hew closely to these standards. But for many writers today the fixed forms, like the rhymed quatrain, which Emily Dickinson managed so brilliantly, have become a straitjacket.

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There are many alternatives for patterning sound. Consider the psalms. No one who prays the psalms will claim that they rhyme, but in a larger sense they do, strictly. Each line is immediately matched by another of equal length, which says the same thing in other words, or develops the statement, as in this verse of Psalm 107: God changed rivers into desert, / springs of water into thirsty ground. Shifts of thought and alterations of mood are needed to prevent monotony, but the pattern governs strongly. Also a number of psalms have repeated segments, i.e., refrains (e.g., Psalms 42, 43, 46, 67, 80), which function as echoes. Echoing is a great resource for poetry and song, as it is for rhetoric.

In modern poetry skill lies above all in management of the line. The ear has to be good at tying together sounds within the line, whether by alliteration or assonance (similar vowel sound) or by keeping a key word at the end of the line, which is the most emphatic place. In unrhymed poetry, the slight pause to dwell at the end of a line is a key to maintaining rhythm.

Somber though it is, the poem Driving Home by Charles Simic, (The New Yorker, 8/13), is a classic of intelligent design. Here is the first of two stanzas:

Minister of our coming doom,

preaching

On the car radio, how right

Your Hell and damnation sound

to me

As I travel these small, bleak roads

Thinking of the mailmans son

The Army sent back in a sealed

coffin.

Much of what that poem means lies in how it sounds. The second stanza matches the first in number of lines and their length. The endings of the lines are strong, and certain phrases stick in the ear.

It is possible to write more fluidly than Charles Simic chooses to do here. Consider this segment from A Village Life, by Louise Glück (The New Yorker, 8/13), where the length of lines and stanzas keeps changing: In the window, the moon is hanging over the earth,/ meaningless but full of messages...burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes/ it could actually make something grow on earth.

These lines are definite, strong. Their start-stop is effective. A very long line is always perilous, but the poet manages it. The music here is subtle but unmistakable.

Charles Simic and Louise Glück are just two paradigms that modern poetry offers. The accomplished poet eventually finds his or her own voice, but it has to have music in it. No jays or crows, please. No cuckoos either. Robins and meadowlarks, yes.

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