[The following article in honor of National Poetry Month appeared in slightly different form in March of 2003.]
John Keats created the term “negative capability,” the idea that a poem holds within it one thing as well as its opposite. For example, when we eulogize someone’s death, we also celebrate their life. When we ache because of unrequited love, we also celebrate the lover’s longed-for presence. When we write about the unseen, we make it visible.
The sounds our words make are one way a poem holds its opposites. Changes in the poem’s weather (created from the opposing front coming in) signal a poem’s discovery, insight, or resolution.
Developing an ability to hear changes in the sounds of a poem and an ability with craft to create these sounds will enable more resonance in your poems. To train your ear to hear where poems are on the road to their discoveries, listen for changes in that weather in others’ poems.
Here are the first lines in Peter Meinke’s poem “Apples,” first published in Poetry Magazine and now put to use in his book, The Shape of Poetry:
The apple I see and the apple
I think I see and the apple
I say I see
I hear a quiet gentleness in the long e sounds, the soft consonant sounds of the s’s, and the exhalation required to say the a in apple. All contribute to the poem’s balmy start. But by the poem’s end the lines read:
like some titanic idea
through the North Pole
in the apple of my eye
Harsher consonant sounds are in the word “titanic,” especially in the ending c. Saying North Pole creates more staccato than saying any word in the first three lines. The sound of apple in the ending “in the apple of my eye” phrase is one of disappointment and upset.
Peter Meinke describes the poem from which these lines come as a love poem about something difficult happening in a relationship. In the shift in sounds from the opening to the closing of the poem, I hear the softness of love turned, for a time at least, into disgruntlement.
In “The ABC of Aerobics,” another of Peter Meinke’s poems quoted in The Shape of Poetry, the speaker is exercising. He begins at the start of his exercise routine:
Air seeps through alleys and our diaphragms
balloon blackly with this mix of
carbon monoxide and the thousand corrosives…
I hear discomfort in the three contiguous one syllable words at the start and the way the next words take over in a persistent boxing sound. You hear this in the many syllables of “balloon blackly,” “carbon monoxide,” and “thousand corrosives.”
In the middle of this poem the lines sound different as the exerciser is remembering an old girlfriend he believes is most probably married to the wrong guy:
…God bless her wherever she lives
tied to that turkey who hugely
undervalues the beauty of her tiny earlobes…
The sound here is still one of boxing or marching or thumping out the rhythm of aerobics’ music but spit and fury are replaced by an evenness in the sound, a rhythm that seems to say, as we do of heart rate, “We’re in the zone.”
Then in the midst of the achieved plateau, the exerciser thinks of how he’d live longer if he had one look at his seventh-grade love. The poem ends with this rhythm: “zucchini for drinking and dreaming of her breathing hard.”
It is hard to yell “zucchini;” it has to be more like a stage whisper at the loudest or the middle of the word gets caught in your throat. “Dreaming” and “breathing” have gentle sounds and “hard” doesn’t sound so hard here placed more like a wedge to keep the gym door open for the breeze. The words here sound to me like a cool down after all the exercise and the arousing memory.
We say of poetry that how a poem sounds is also how a poem means. You can not separate the breath that is reporting in the poem from the poem itself. In that way, the meaning in a poem can not be paraphrased.
Here are some exercises that will help you develop your sense of sound in writing:
Think of places you have been on a difficult day—the dentist’s chair, the freeway in a traffic jam, at home with cranky children or a broken appliance, at your desk with a stomach ache. Describe the sound of something in the scene using the technique of alliteration, words in a row starting with the same letter.
For a garbage disposal, for instance, I might think of the words grind, gobble, gulp and gallop.
I might plead with my broken garbage disposal:
Oh, sink jaws, please don’t chew so politely,
but grind and gobble, gulp and gallop.
I might say about the dentist’s drill that it whizzes, whines, and whinnies.
I sit with my mouth wide open,
my hands gripping the chair arms.
The drill is going to take me for a fearful ride
with its whizzes, whines and whinnies.
When you chose irritating situations you are more likely to hear the momentum in the alliteration.
Now think of places you have been on a joyful day—a forest after a rain, the beach at sunrise, on a road trip in your lover’s car. Use alliteration to describe something in this day.
About a forest after rain, I wrote: Old pine needles glisten gold in the grand sunlight.
At the beach at sunrise I “heard breezes in the dune grass whistle to me and whisper your name.”
Of being a passenger in the car on a road trip I wrote: My feet flung fully uncovered on the dashboard
In the first two of these alliterations, I hear quiet, lulling sound and, in the last, something of a proud pacing.
For more practice, try using onomatopoeia.
This is the term for when a word sounds like what it names—hush and hiccups, purr and pound for example. Think of things that sound gentle in this world: a baby breathing when asleep; cookie dough falling from a spoon. See if you can describe this gentleness using onomatopoeia.
Next use onomatopoeia to describe something harsh—the sound of a motorcycle starting up, a car without a muffler, a tree cracking in a storm.
Make a practice of noticing changes in the weather of your poems. If you don’t hear a change, the poem may not have fully realized its meaning.
If you hear changes between the beginning and end of your poem, think about the direction and what that says of your poem’s discovery (i.e. cloudy to sunny, cold to warm, just before rain to the storm).
Paying attention to sound is how you come to know your poems (and your prose!).