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” –