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
“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.”