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” –

First Load of Hay

Much to the amazement of many people, my husband included, I bought a couple of Shetland sheep and brought them home last week. Mind you, it was after cleaning out the barn, putting up fencing, and learning about hay vs. straw. Not that that’s the only thing I need to learn about sheep. Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, purchased after the sheep were, has so many details about predators and diseases, it’s enough to scare anyone into never owning an animal of any sort. But the twin ewes, Ruby and Tess, are mine now, and they are as cute as sheep can be, which I happen to think is pretty darn cute. (Ruby even wags her short little tail when petted!).

Twin ewes, Ruby and Tess, on the left, and twin unnamed rams on the right. All lambs in the photo were born in April. The one behind me kept nibbling my neck.

Shetland sheep are a primitive breed; their “roots go back over a thousand years, probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands by Viking settlers” (NASSA – see below). They are hardy, good grazers, easy lambers, and perhaps best of all, like the other more famous island animal, Shetland Ponies, are small. Ruby and Tess are small enough for me to pick them up easily (well, Ruby is a little easier to lift than porker Tess). Having been born in April, they will only grow another inch or two. Soon they will be shorn and I’ll have their wool processed into the beautiful earth-toned yarn that Shetland sheep are known for. Until then, and surely afterwards, I will enjoy them for their company, music, and inspiration.

First Load of Hay

I drove up to Enosburg in a borrowed truck
for my first load of hay, second cut
and green. The farmer I met, lean,
seventyish, with a believable
smile, an easy gait, and a Red
Sox cap, scrambled up to the top
of his hay wagon, seven or eight bales
high, and tossed the first one down
to me standing in the bed of the truck.
I was instantly in love, and he must
have seen the shock on my face when I
realized I’d only be able to fit
six out of the twenty bales I needed
to winter my two Shetland sheep.
“Turn it on its side,” he said and I did
and pushed it neatly in the corner of the bed
then straightened up and moved out of the way
as he tossed a few more bales that landed
with thumps in the back of the truck.
“Used to be quite a ball player,”
he offered, taking careful aim
to land the next bale in the last
slot with the precision of a baseball pitcher.
“Stack the next layer flat. That’ll
lock it in.” I did as directed,
opening the tailgate for more space
and we piled the layers higher and higher,
he reassuring me that I’d make
it back the fifteen miles without
a spill. He tied a rope underneath
the back bumper and up and over
the mountain of hay to the cab window.
After we counted and recounted and did
the math on the back of my checks, I paid
him for twenty-six bales. Then I drove
out slowly, the sun shining in my eyes,
and picked up speed down the state highway,
the windows open, and my grandfather, dead
these fifty years, checking the load
before settling down beside me.

It was the second load – the straw
for bedding on which the sheep would piss
and shit that the farmer’s wife either
told a bad joke or insulted me –
I was too ignorant to know which –
and the farmer scrambled to the top
of another stack, nearly as high
as the pole barn ceiling itself,
but this time he put his hand in a hidden
hive and a dozen tiny bees
swarmed, stinging him, twice somehow
under his wedding band, and once
up in his shirt by his armpit.
He jumped from the high bales, landing
at my feet in a heap, and swore like
my father used to cuss when our car broke
down. I kind of picked the farmer up
and brushed a bug off his forehead.
“They don’t need tying,” he said, about
the bales in the back of the truck, and he
read my name wrong  when I
handed him my check. At least
the rain had stopped. I rode home
alone. But the first load, the load
of clover and sweet timothy,
was, and shall remain, perfect.

Perhaps this sheep on the trail on which I was hiking in Ireland a couple of years ago was an omen of things to come?  Alas, it was more likely just a sheep on a trail in Ireland since there are literally 3, 480,000 sheep in Ireland according to the Ireland Sheep and Goat Census of 2011.

Ruby and Tess at their new home.

Is that the way to the beauty salon?







And as long as I’m getting silly, check out this video that my friend Christy sent along:


Experiencing the beauty of nature from afar or experiencing something at a superficial level can lead us to romanticize a situation, that is, ignore the underlying facts and experience the world through our emotions. I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s what I did in the the poem above when I thought it was finished at the end of the first stanza. I have to admit, the day I went up to get the first load of hay was a great day and everything seemed wonderful. I didn’t even mind waiting in construction on the way to Enosburg (and as you can see, the construction work, among other obstacles I faced that day, didn’t make it in to the poem). As I was driving somewhere else a week or so later, after I had gotten the load of straw, I realized that the first load was a starry-eyed story and if I wanted a believable poem, I had better put in a dose of reality somewhere. But I didn’t want to change the memory or more precisely, the feeling of the memory. After all, it had been a great day. Then I remembered the second trip to the farmer and laughed out loud in my car and knew it was the perfect antidotal anecdote to that romantic first load.

“Romanticism” is now attributed, more or less, to a movement in art and literature considered to have taken place from the end of the 18th century to the mid-to-late 19th. I say “more or less” because a piece of writing or art, no matter the time period, can be considered romantic, not in the love sense, but because it possesses characteristics for which the Romanticism period was known. During this time, writers were reacting to The Enlightenment, the new domination of science, and the industrialization of cities. Their reaction included emphasizing intuition over reason, focusing on individualism over society, and including feelings over facts. Additionally, artists emphasized “the ideals of nature and reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural” (See link below at Poets.org). Included in the reaction to the new rules of science and society (and as a reaction to classical poetry) poets began loosening the rules of poetry to allow less structure with meter and rhyme, an increased variety of content and subject, and ordinary language.

English poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats are known as the “Big Six” of Romanticism, but many women were well-publsihed during this time and include Mary Shelley, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Turner Smith, Mary Robinson, Hannah More, and Joanna Baillie. In the United States, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe are known as the poets of the Romanticism period and were influenced by Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau.  In France, Victor Hugo, and in Germany, Fredrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were the main poets of the Romanticism era.

How can Whitman and Poe – who stylistically are so different with Whitman’s sweeping lines and encompassing concepts and Poe’s strict meter and specificity –  both be considered Romantics? This is explained if we look at Colin Holcombe’s succinct list of some of the elements of Romanticism, found on his website Textetc. Holcombe acknowledges that this is a simplification of Romantisim, yet the list he offers is helpful in understanding how poets of such polar styles are considered to belong to the same literary movement. His list includes:

1. emotion over reason
2. sensory experience before intellect
3. imagination as the road to transcendental experience and spiritual truth
4. the human personality, in all its inexplicable moods and depths
5. genius, hero, or exceptional figure
6. ethnic, folk, and national cultures
7. the occult, exotic, dieased or satanic
8. the remote in time and space

Holcombe also asks, “Can the world be understood by imagination? Can poetry discover realms of significance beyond the conscious and rational?” In order to be a poet, you must believe the answers to these questions are both, Yes. So, yes, we are all romantics; it’s just a matter of degree.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
The Island Rule – why Shetland Island horses and sheep are so small
A Brief Guide to Romanticism at Poets.org
Romanticism at The Literature Network
NASSA – North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association – what everyone needs to know about Shetland sheep