Today’s Work

I have six Shetland sheep. They are pets so I named them all. Ruby and Tess are twins with beautiful brown fleece. They were the first sheep I brought home. Then I took a wether from my friend because he was going to be lamb chops, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I named him Pan. He is white but has cool black markings around his edges, that is, his face, hind quarters and belly. He’s got cool black horns. This summer I purchased another set of twin lambs with sweet little white faces: Bonnie and Sergeant Butterscotch. Their wool color is ever-changing. Shetland sheep do that. In fact, you never know after a shearing what color will grow in next. The sixth sheep is darling little Merlin, the black sheep of the flock. You can learn a lot from animals.

POEM:
Today’s Work

The first task I finished
was picking through the last
batch of wool, sheared from one
of the twins, my fingers lost
in the brown fleece, warm,
and greasy as I plucked fibers
to get to embedded seed heads
and timothy burrs, caught, carried,
and buried, small burdens
that had created so much work,
tucked inside such an unassuming
surface until I discovered each one
as a little lump and pulled apart
all that clung to it, pulled out
each tiny sun that no longer burned.

I do not recall what I accomplished
the rest of the day. It did not matter.

ELEMENT:
Assonance and Consonance in Poetry

One cannot talk about poetry without talking about sound. After all, poetry’s roots are in music and song and the definition of poetry encompasses elements of music: rhythm, meter, patterns of repetition. With sound comes additional meaning. Perhaps the repeated sounds within a poem create a particular mood. They certainly create pleasure for the listener. Rhyme – the repetition of end sounds – is often thought to be the key sound found in poems, but there is more than rhyme that meets the ear. Sound can also be emphasized in the repetition of vowel sounds found anywhere in the word. This is called assonance. An example can be seen in Robert Burns, “Song Composed in August”:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain…

This line does include internal rhyme (rhyming within the line: grain, plain), but it also includes that long a sound found in the word waving. Try substituting another word for waving and it doesn’t sound nearly as delightful. That long a sound works with the meaning of the word to expand the view of that plain.

Particular vowel sounds can create certain moods. The assonance when using the oo sound can be soothing. The repetition of ee can be creepy, eerie. In the above poem, “Today’s Work,” the short u sound kept cropping up. I try to pay attention when a particular sound presents itself a few times. Is it coincidence that the words I’m selecting have similar sounds or is what I’m writing conducive to certain words with those sounds? After I have the first draft (or two) of a poem, I reexamine it for sound. What is happening, sound-wise, at the beginning of this poem? There is the assonance in finished and picking, the assonance of task, last and batch, then that of fleece and greasy, followed by embedded and head – perhaps enough repetition to make it sound pleasant. But with the introduction of the phrase “much work” there is a long series of repeated u sounds: much, tucked, such, unassuming, discovered, one, lump, clung, sun. (A sound can be spelled many different ways). What is going on here? Why all these short u sounds? Some of them came into the poem naturally, but once I noticed a few I worked in more. Why? I don’t know. I thought it sounded good and then there was something about the chug, chug, chug of the tedious work it takes to pull out all those darn little seed heads from a large fleece. That ugly little u sound seems to emphasize the work.

Consonance – the repetition of consonants within and among words – is also a sound element that adds layers to a poem. Look again at the Burns’ line from above along with the line that follows it:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain,
delights the weary farmer…

We hear in these lines a repetition of the initial w sound in waving, wide, and weary, giving breathlessness to the lines and adding more emphasis to the grandeur of the farm and the exhaustion of the farmer. The repetition of the initial consonant sound in words is called alliteration. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella explains in their book, Teaching The Art of Poetry: The Moves, “Alliteration is a quickener, a stimulant…” (27). This is especially so when used in close succession to each other as in many nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and jump rope songs.

In addition to the alliteration in the two lines of Burns above, we also hear the repeated l sound in the words plain and delights, which connect one line to the next, lulling us further into the song, or rather, poem. A third instance of consonance in the couplet above is the r found in grain, o’er, weary, farmer. This sound softens the poem, lets us linger on each word a little longer.

Where is the consonance in “Todays Work”? Well, there is alliteration in first, finished, fingers, fleece, fibers. And there is the consonance of the l sound in last, wool, lost, fleece, plucked. There is the consonance of the “hard c” or k sound in picking, plucked, caught, carried, created, tucked, discovered, clung and accomplished. Interestingly, the k and short u sounds are combined in four of the words just mentioned: plucked, tucked, discovered, and clung. These aren’t particularly pleasant sounds, especially when used together, but the repetition of them emphasizes the difficulty (another word that combines the two sounds) in ridding ourselves of burdens that no longer serve a necessary function, which, of course, is really what the poem is about.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Each of these books offers chapters on the sound in poetry:
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves, edited by Baron Wormser and David Cappella
To Read a Poem, Second Edition, edited by Donald Hall

Modern Times: What They Were and Are – this is a series of weekly essays that Baron Wormser is writing. He just started on September 1, so you don’t have many to catch up on!

And here is a book all about the sound in poetry:

The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin – this is an extensive and deep collection of essays that discuss the role of sound in poetic meaning. On the first page of the introduction we find this statement by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist and literary theorist:
“’Poetry is not the only area where sound symbolism makes itself felt, but it is a province where the internal nexus between sound and meaning changes from latent into patent and manifests itself most palpably and intensely.’” Indeed.

My Dog Barks and All is Lost

2014 has oozed in. For me, the new year has not been a festive pop, a fresh face, or a blank slate to begin anew. The new year transition has been more like a hangover (that I didn’t have; it’s hard to party when the mood is oozy), more like a stalled rather than idling engine, more like the undercoating below the sheen of a final coat of paint. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and without it there would be no good times; it would just be one continuous boring state of evenness.

Here is a poem.

POEM:
My Dog Barks and All is Lost

Suppose it is the pencil
I pick up today
(an old one with the yellow-orange
paint chipping on each ridge
of hexagonal comfort,
a cap eraser worn
into a clay-like lump
of pink softness streaked
with the grey of gritty work,
a dull instead of sharpened
point to rub instead of scratch
words into shape)…suppose it is
a pencil that sways thoughts
to concretize into specific words
that then appear upon the page.
And just like that suppose
my dog barks and all is lost,
the pencil’s power undone
by a deer or rabbit or merely
the shadow of an owl
ready to retire, the sun
not yet quite up, the heaters
clicking and pounding now
as water fills the pipes,
darkness and silence
just two more illusions
with which I must contend.

ELEMENT:
Details

“A poem depends on its detail…”

This is a line from Ellen Bryant Voigt‘s poem, “The Last Class,” which she wrote after teaching her last undergraduate class at MIT. See below for links to the poem (both text and audio).

How does one go about deciding which details to include or omit from a poem? Restraint and extravagance have always been a quintessential issue in writing poetry. The first draft of my poem above did not have all those details of the pencil, and I’m still not sure all of those details should be in there. Shouldn’t I get right to the point of the dog barking the poet from concentration? With the pencil details, there’s a long “entrance ramp” into the poem. After all, everyone knows what a pencil looks like! (The “entrance ramp” analogy was introduced to me in 2010 by fellow Stonecoaster, Karrie Waarala, and it has helped me countless times).

Stephen Dunn, in an interview at Frostburg State University in 2002, spoke about restraint and extravagance (see below for link to the interview). “The kind of judgment that we exercise comes down to the difficult simplicity of knowing what to put in and what to leave out. It’s always a compromise between original intent and the language we find ourselves using. The balance you refer to is dependent on so many things…”

I considered using more restraint and shortening my entrance ramp into the poem above, but without the long drawn-out pencil description, the poem is too quick to get to the dog. The details of the pencil serve multiple functions. The first is insight into the narrator of the poem whose pencils are well-used and comfortable. This is someone who writes a lot and to whom writing brings comfort, yet it also shows that the poet may doubt his/her abilities – what if it isn’t the poet but the pencil that holds the creative powers! Secondly, the details of the pencil are a micro-study in descriptive writing. How do you describe a seemingly normal pencil? Sight (colors), feel (chipped paint, hexagonal), sound (rub instead of scratch) convey the importance of the pencil in the narrator’s life. The third function of the pencil description is the contrast it provides with the vague words at the end of the poem: darkness and silence. Just as with the illusion of the pencil creating the poem on its own, darkness and silence are an illusion. Perhaps this is a depressing ending. Perhaps it isn’t if we know there is always light and sound somewhere or at some time in our lives.

Now, what does the dog have to do with any of it? Do we need to know what type of dog, what it looks like, or where it is outside? No. To put in those details would create a different poem. In this poem, the dog is a transition snapping the poet out of the reverie about the pencil and is a catalyst for the consideration of deeper things than a pencil such as darkness and silence.

But to only talk of the illusion of darkness and silence would not give us much since we best communicate ideas and concepts through images.  “Details…anchor feelings that are more implied than stated,” Baron Wormser explains in the chapter, Details, in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry, The Moves. “Detail,” Wormser explains, “is credibility.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
The history of the pencil from Studio 602: Exploring Creativity in Music and The Arts
“The Last Class” – poem by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Click the title link to hear Voigt read her poem. Click here to see the poem.
Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn
Tiger Face – a poem by Stephen Dunn, mentioned in the interview above. Also found in Dunn’s book, What Goes On 


Awakening

This past month, spring thus far, has been one of changes and transformations for me as I begin the transition from the classroom to the world of poetry. April, especially, has propelled me deeper into this world due to traveling around the state to attend readings, slams, and workshops. On Wednesday evening I attended my first “spoken word” workshop, given by Lizzy Fox in Burlington, Vermont, at ArtsRiot. Her workshops, she explained, tend to be place-based, and she took us on a meditation journey to the places we have been. After roaming back through all the places I lived as a child (I moved 11 times by the time I was 14) and all the states and countries I’ve traveled to, I found myself concentrating on my current place, my home. As these things go, I had just received an email from my friend Nancy about spring peepers. So it is with inspiration from Lizzy and Nancy that I drafted the following poem.

Alas, it wouldn’t be a very good “spoken word” poem, but maybe, someday, I’ll get there.

POEM:
Awakening

It is always about this time in April
when I open my window wide to sleep
and spring peepers – those tiny tree frogs
with sticky fingers – begin to call.
At first,
 a few of the love-sick amphibians
chirrup their quaint country song,
vibrating the air with their pulsating
throats. Each night that follows
those first throbbings, the chorus
increases until, perhaps a week later,
a crescendo of frenzied deafening decibels
crashes through my window, drowns
out the last of winter’s silence.
When I first moved to this place,
I couldn’t sleep for the cacophony
of a million peepers. I never thought
they were speaking to me. This spring,
I hear
 them for the first time, knowing
the serenity they have broken
was just emptiness, knowing
that some nights they sing,
other nights they pray, and tonight,
tonight they whoop with joy.

ELEMENT:
Poetry of Place

The topic of place has been forefront in my mind since March 23. This was the day I was contacted by a third cousin I never knew existed who saw some photos of our ancestors that I had posted on ancestry.com. His research confirmed mine and proved that my ancestor – my great, great, great, great, great, great – count ’em, six – grandfather settled a town in the 1700’s just a half an hour from where I currently live. This might not be such a big deal but his descendants – my ancestors – moved to the midwest in the 1800’s and here I am, almost three hundred years later, in this same place.

If this weren’t enough, I attended a workshop on Monday evening with the great Mary Jane Dickerson. In the workshop she spoke of place, of writing through exploring place, “from one to many” as we explore the individual experience and connect it to the larger world. Listen to Mary Jane here:

Then, there was Lizzy’s workshop.

What is it about place? Poet Wendell Berry said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are involves a multi-layered, multi-dimensional awareness of the past and present, of people, land, politics, ecology, and even geology, as Baron Wormser points out in his book Teaching the Art of Poetry (279). (Whenever I walk in the woods behind my house, I am in awe of the 12 feet high boulders that came to a skidding halt from a long-ago glacier and that are now neatly tucked in between maple and hemlock trees).

In his article, “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s ‘The Secret of Light,‘ James Galvin writes, that “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty.” I have a hard time understanding this. Perhaps, Galvin is saying the same thing as Mark Johnson in his book The Body in the Mind, and which Terry Hermsen discusses in his book, Poetry of Place. This is the point that we cannot touch ‘the real world,’ cannot step out of our bodies and minds to experience place objectively. In order to do that, we must reduce the self so that place is the essence.

I’m still not sure I buy it.

What I do buy is that in order to experience place in all its dimensions, we need to look to metaphor, which is rooted in the senses. We must look at things “in terms of another” as Frost said. Hermsen has an excellent discussion of metaphor in the beginning chapter of his book, citing Russian semiotician Roman Jakobson and his distinction between the function of transferring of information that metonymy offers and the connecting function of metaphor.

Metaphor connects the physical world with language and potentially with understanding. Communicating a point in time and space – that is, place – and all the history, emotion, mystery, and weight of that time and space, is the poet’s challenge.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
National Geographic: Spring Peepers
Russian Linguist Roman Jakobson
Metaphor, metonymy (and other tropes) – a discussion from the University of Chicago