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.

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.