Driving Home

Poetry is certainly NOT dead in northern Vermont! In fact, it seems as though there are more poetry events than ever to attend. So many that I can’t get to them all even with my new non-teaching schedule. One event I did attend (on September 16 in Barre, Vermont) was a lecture entitled “The Music of Poetry” given by pianist Michael Arnowitt. Using an eclectic array of both musical pieces and poetry, Arnowitt discussed the similarities and parallels found in music and poetry. If you were unable to attend, you can catch some of his other lectures and concerts. See his calendar here.

What does Michael Arnowitt have to do with today’s poem? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. The poem today is about – surprise – death. Or you could say it’s about – surprise again – the human body. And maybe that does connect the poem to Michael Arnowitt. After all, poetry and music are two of the highest expressions of our bodies’ mind and senses.

Driving Home

The problem is our bodies,
is in our bodies, that is
having bodies. And then
not having a body. How
painful this inaccessibility,
jarring enough to be
nearly, sometimes totally –

as in the case of my mother-
in-law who died of heartbreak
two days after her sister,
orphaned as young girls
as they were, inseparable
for the rest of their lives –


What we cannot stand
is to not see the body
reach out to raise a glass
of water to the lips or not
be able to watch the slap
of the cap on top of the balding
head, routinely cock-eyed
in that irritable way,
or not hear the laugh
in little snorty spurts like spastic
hiccups, interrupting our seriousness
for a moment. So much easier

on us if we could just cut out
this segment, that is, this part
where we are encased
in the crapshoot of flesh.
How much simpler to just skip
the body altogether to reside
in heaven, hell, the white light,
nowhere, or wherever, and deal
with each other on another plane
with no bruises to remember,
owing nothing to a kiss.

The Musicality of Poetry

As a pianist, Michael Arnowitt is very conscientious and concerned with sound. Poets need to be as well.

Here are some points that I found interesting from Arnowitt’s lecture, some of which I have elaborated upon:

  • Both music and poetry are organized sound and rhythm.
  • Rhythm and rhyme have a time element to them. A true rhyme must have the same time element. For example, complete and compete are true rhymes while complete, obsolete, and meet are not due to the varying number of syllables, hence time.
  • Sounds are important to the meaning of words; they have an effect on us – think of the poem “Jabberwocky” or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Scat that is sung. All of these contain “nonsense” syllables, yet we can derive meaning and feeling from the sound and its context. If you don’t believe me, check out this haunting excerpt of a performance of sorts reviewed in an article in the Irish Examiner (if only I were in Dublin next week!):
  • Both music and poetry are built upon the repetition of small groups – for poetry it’s the phoneme, word, line, stanza. For music it’s the note, motif, phrase, melody.
  • We control time with white space on the page and rests or holds in the musical score. The lack of white space speeds up a poem’s rhythm and the presence of white space slows it down. Think of stanza breaks.
  • Alliteration and assonance, like repeated motifs in music, give both unity and diversity to a poem. The repetition of a sound gives the unity and sets up the ear to also notice when that sound isn’t there. We notice the absence of a particular sound only after a pattern has been established, and that absence, then, is something to pay attention to (if it’s intentional and not just a mere coincidence – although sometimes while writing we seem to select a word by happenstance, but it is our ear that is selecting it. Sometimes, though, we don’t go back and listen to each word’s impact and have missed wonderful sound opportunities.
  • We can speed up or slow down the pace of a piece of poetry or music with particular sounds (phonemes or notes). Vowel sounds slow our spoken language (and are more important to an English word’s meaning than consonants), while consonants speed it up.

Language, its sounds and language acquisition have always fascinated me. I have always noticed how lyrics fit (or don’t fit) their musical scores. (I believe Joni Mitchell to be one of the best poet/musicians ever – see the youtube of “California” at the very end of this post). It was no accident that I was drawn to foreign languages in college and majored in Modern Languages and Linguistics, after almost switching to Speech Pathology. If only I had had a great singing voice!

All of this brings me to something else that Mr. Arnowitt mentioned and which I find absolutely fascinating. That is how spoken sounds are categorized. Three categorizations that Arnowitt mentioned (there are many more and those mentioned can be broken down into smaller groups) are fricatives, plosives, and nasal sounds.

Here is the experts’ explanation of fricatives: “Fricatives are consonants that are formed by impeding the flow of air somewhere in the vocal apparatus so that a friction-sound is produced. Because of the way the flow of breath is heard in producing fricatives, fricatives are also called spirants. Fricatives may be voiced (vocal cords vibrating during the articulation of the fricative) or voiceless (vocal cords not vibrating during the articulation of the fricative).” This is taken from Furman University website and is found at http://eweb.furman.edu/~wrogers/phonemes/phono/fric.htm.

More simply put, the fricative sounds are
1. /f/ (the phoneme spelled f in fine)
2. /v/ (the phoneme spelled v in vine)
3. /q/ (the phoneme spelled th in thistle)
4. /ð/ (the phoneme spelled th in this)
5. /s/ (the phoneme spelled s in sue)
6. /z/ (the phoneme spelled z in zoo)
7. /s</ (the phoneme spelled sh in shore)
8. /z</ (the phoneme spelled z in azure)
9. /h/ (the phoneme spelled h in hot).

At the website above, it explains further in depth the different types of fricatives, but this is surely enough for here and now. To illustrate the use of fricatives in poetry, Arnowitt used a line from Shakespeare (The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2).
Full fathom five thy father lies:

If we look at this line, we quickly see the initial consonant alliteration in the words full, fathom, five, and father. But if we look at (or rather listen to) the fricative alliteration, we can also add the “th” sound in fathom, the /v/ sound in five, the “th” sound in thy (which is different than the than the “th” sound in fathom), the “th” sound in father, and the /z/ sound that the letter s makes in the word lies. This gives a total of nine fricatives in six words. Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t keep this up in the immediate subsequent lines; doing so would be ridiculous, comical almost, but this line is rich and delicious in itself and in its context:
Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them – Ding-dong bell.

Of course, I have nothing like this in “Driving Home,” but there are some repeated fricatives, in particular the /z/ sound at the end of many words, the /v/ sound found in the middle of words, and the /s/ sound found in the words “inaccessibility” and “sometimes,” all in the first stanza.  I believe they give a unity to the stanza and emphasize the problem I’m dealing with: “is bodies.”

Plosives, another group of phonemes, are explained in The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (what a find!): “Plosives are the kinds of sounds usually associated with the letters p, t, k; b, d, g, in which air flow from the lungs is interrupted by a complete closure being made in the mouth.” The hard /ch/ sound also fits into this category. Notice the words with plosives in the Shakespeare example above, in particular “Ding-dong bell.” A great example (mine, not Arnowitt’s) of the plosives doing their job is in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells,” which this segment of Shakespeare brought to mind. Not only is “The Bells” a study in meter, it’s a study in the use of sounds and how sounds and the repetition of sounds build meaning. It is a must read-ALOUD.

Lastly, I’ll briefly mention the nasals.  There are only three nasal sounds in English – the /m/, /n/, and / ŋ/ or ng as in the word “sing.” Nasals give us a humming or buzzing sound.  A good example of this is found in the last two lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Come Down O Maid.”

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And the murmuring of innumerable bees.
In the last two lines of “Driving Home” there are three words with nasals: “remember…owing…nothing.” These words connect the two main words of the lines, “bruises” and “kiss.” I find it interesting that “bruises” and “kiss,” both begin with plosives and end with fricatives. Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps not.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson – an entertaining, quick biography
A Teacher Writes – an interesting, resourceful website written by British teacher Melanie Kendry. I haven’t perused this as thoroughly as I want to yet, but will.
Sound In Poetry – I don’t agree with everything this author says, but he makes some interesting points.
Check out this poetry event!

And here’s that very early rendition of “California” –

Breaking Ground

For the past couple of months I have been working on a poem that I hope will serve as an introduction to a collection of poems I plan to write as I research my ancestors.  I don’t know what I will find along the way, but I hope to link the individuals I learn about to place and history to reveal –  what? I don’t know. A thread, I guess, that runs through the quilt of America.

Breaking Ground

I do not know any of you
and can only write
in anticipation of our meeting,
which more than likely will happen
in a town clerk’s office no bigger
than a one-room school house.
There I may find a book, dirty,
damaged even, by years of thumbs
and forefingers riffling
through the pages. I will plow
through the misspellings,
miscalculations, misinterpretations
to find you. Perhaps I’ll meet you
in the back corner of a grave yard
at a headstone carved in granite
that lies cracked  in two at my feet.
Or, my toe will tap a stone
and I will scrape away moss,
heavy and damp, to reveal
your name. I hear your whispers
rising. I know there was a murder

of an Indian in Vermont. He’d set fire
to your barn, but the reason for the fire
will forever be interred. I know
a massacre by the British in Pennsylvania
left you, a one-year old boy, and you,
his grandfather, to exhume a life together.

Women where are you?

I know many moves left a trail of farms
over the past three hundred years.
Some of you wound your way west
to Wisconsin, while others of you
rode the railroad as far as it could take you,
to Iowa where I almost met you,
Grandfather Oscar, had you hung on
four months longer. I know the stories of how
you dug the earth and eked out an existence
in the Dustbowl, and were relentless
in preserving pockets of virgin prairie,
understanding its sacred loam.

Here I am, back east, living
on a patch of land not far
from where you began,
before all of your fibrous short-lived
roots were replaced by offshoots,
too numerous to count, and no larger,
no smaller than the originals. Forget
the taproot that goes deep into the soil
to stay put. We have fled and spread
as a restless lot, ready to reap

something, anything, new. Is this
why I search for you? The reason
I want to pluck and preserve you?

How far back do my brown eyes go,
and which of you regarded the world
through blue eyes that remained
invisible for generations and that now
appear in my daughter? Can my diggings
unearth a picture of you, older and deeper
than a portrait printed in sepia, with your stare
of stamina  and a collar so high that your chin
cannot drop in weariness? Those photographs
only hint at how your hands throbbed
after hauling water from the stream,
or how you created miracles
with a needle and thread, or how you
caressed your newborn. Will that baby
be the first of you I hold
in my own hands as a poem?


Sound is one of the basic elements in poetry. It is the main element, in fact, that separates poetry from prose (and one of the main factors why a prose poem can be considered poetry, separate from prose). If you ask young children, and often not-so-young children, what poetry is, they will invariably mention rhyme.  What they almost always mean, of course, is the end rhyme of lines that we become familiar with in such texts as nursery rhymes and Dr. Suess books. We know rhyme as generally the repetition of end sounds in words, but rhyme is much more complicated than this.  In fact, in one resource, I found definitions for 41 different types of rhyme, of which I’ll discuss a few here, beginning with the more common and often used terms. Rime is something different than rhyme and I discuss this briefly at the end of this post.

Rhyme can take place within lines (internal rhyme), which adds to the musicality of the poem, emphasizes certain words or concepts within a poem, and makes the poem more memorable. I love using internal rhyme, and mostly do it unconsciously. When I revise, though, I am conscious of how enriching internal rhyme can make the poem and actively seek to improve the sound of my poems by using it. In the poem above, I use internal rhyme right out of the starting blocks in the first line: “I do not know any of you.” The rhyme is subtle due to both words in the rhyming pair being such ordinary and common monosyllabic words; in fact the rhyming pair is quite easy to over look, but its presence adds to the musicality of the line and sets up the reader’s expectations.

Another common type of rhyme is slant rhyme. This is also called near rhyme, imperfect rhyme, oblique rhyme, and off rhyme, among other terms. It is essentially the use of assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds. This is my favorite type of rhyme. What I like so much about it – and other forms of rhyme – is the use of what has occurred in the poem in order to move it forward. Slant rhyme is even more subtle than internal rhyme and isn’t always caught with the first reading of a poem. More often, it is noticed when the poem is read aloud, as it should be. In the poem above, line 17, “Or, my toe will tap a stone” contains a slant rhyme. The line also contains alliteration (toe, tap), and consonance (toe, tap, stone) and only contains mono-syllabic words, which all contribute to the sound of the poem, but those points are for different discussions. In the second stanza, “interred” and “massacre” is a slant rhyme, and there are other instances of slant rhyme in the rest of the poem as well.

Masculine rhyme is the term used for words that rhyme and that contain a final stressed syllable, or if they are monosyllabic. For example, mound/pound and repair/square are masculine rhymes. Feminine rhymes are words that have more than one syllable and that end in an unstressed syllable: pleasure/measure or collected/corrected or swinging/winging.  I found one source (a blog from Seton Hill University – see below) that explains that masculine rhyme is blunt and obvious, a feminine rhyme is more complex and delicate. That’s certainly one way to remember them. While most traditional poetry in English uses masculine rhyme, rap, limericks, Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe all use/used feminine rhyme. Interesting.

Click this link for Poe’s The Raven, in which you will find both internal and feminine rhyme.

And here is Swift’s A Description of a City Shower that begins in feminine rhyme and contains many masculine ones as well.

To give you a taste of the variety of rhyme, I’ve included the following, which are a couple of more obscure types:

Amphisbaenic rhymes are two words that have their consonant sounds reversed (and are often the same word spelled in opposite directions). Edmund Wilson coined the term, using the Greek mythological myth of the snake with a head at each end as its namesake. Examples: late/tale and step/pets and pots/stop.

Pararhyme is a term used when all of the consonants in the words remain the same but the vowels change. Examples: stop/step, light/late, and mask/musk.

Now, to the difference between rime and rhyme. I found the best explanation of this, once again, on a blog. Rhyme is when words share the same sounds in some way. rime is when words share the same written scheme. Let me explain further: care/pair/tear all rhyme but are not rimes.  The “-are” in the words care/pare/rare is the rime of these words. Rime is a syllable of a word, beginning with the vowel of that syllable.

I intended this section of this post to be on the sound of poetry, starting with rhyme. It looks like there will be many more posts about sound.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
American Lit II – a blog on poetry from Seton Hill. This is a few years old, but has a good course syllabus for reading and good discussion points in it.
Quizlit Flashcards – 41 definitions of rhyme
The Sounds of Poetry, A Brief Guide – I just finished this book by Robert Pinsky this morning. It is both informative and aggravating. It explains some of the basics to the sounds in poetry and has some gems to remember, but Pinsky tries to tie every poem to iambic pentameter and neglects almost every woman poet in the world. He would do well by us all if he revised his 1998 edition.
The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound – the next book I’ll be reading about this topic. Edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, this is a book of essays that is said to go “beyond traditional metrical studies.” Here is the book description from Amazon.com:
“Ranging from medieval Latin lyrics to a cyborg opera, sixteenth-century France to twentieth-century Brazil, romantic ballads to the contemporary avant-garde, the contributors to The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound explore such subjects as the translatability of lyric sound, the historical and cultural roles of rhyme, the role of sound repetition in novelistic prose, the connections between “sound poetry” and music, between the visual and the auditory, the role of the body in performance, and the impact of recording technologies on the lyric voice. Along the way, the essays take on the “ensemble discords” of Maurice Scève’s Délie, Ezra Pound’s use of “Chinese whispers,” the alchemical theology of Hugo Ball’s Dada performances, Jean Cocteau’s modernist radiophonics, and an intercultural account of the poetry reading as a kind of dubbing.”