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” –

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.


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.


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.