Devotions of the Ear

Posted on January 9, 2013


bellThis is the first installment of a three-part exploration that privileges the role that sound and silence play in making the poem. I mean most particularly to explore the sounds that sound longs for inside the poem – sounds of the outer world and, as well, those felt whirrings inside the body.

This is all heading toward a theory of sound and poetry: that sound shapes our appreciation of image (more on that in a couple of weeks), and that sound informs our sense of time (that a week or so later).  A shorter version of this first piece will appear in a  book of craft essays compiled and edited by Diane Lockward, (to be released this spring/summer), and in her March Poetry Newsletter which people can sign up for here.

 An exploration of the role that sound sounds in poetry will take center stage at the next Perfect Ten conference in Truchas, NM – next month, February 8-11.

Long before I started writing, I was—still am—a classical musician, having played the clarinet from the time I was seven years old. It’s not at all coincidental to my fascination with the connection between poetry and sound that only half the job of being a musician is to make sound in the form of music. The other half of the work (the larger half, really) is to listen, whether sitting (as the clarinets do) in the middle of the orchestra, behind the violins and cellos and violas, and in front of the brass and percussion, or in the far more intimate setting of the chamber group, nearly alone on stage but for a small handful of other musicians no more than an arm’s length away.

piano innards-2Making music is all about connecting with other musicians and from there to the notations on the page; it’s about listening intently to others as they, in turn, listen intently to you. The work is wordless (except, of course, the work of singers—about which, more in a coming installment), the gestures composed of sound and shaped by sound, by wind and the movement of fingers and bows. One communicates by example and reaction and a certain extra-sensory “feel” for how sounds (and, just as importantly, silences), fit together, climb, diminish, expand, express, pause, breathe. Volume after volume has been written to analyze, discuss, and teach how to make music “sing.” (I’ve included one such in the bibliography below, by Ivan Galamian on playing the violin – but really, on making music.)

Oddly, there’s not been much said about the preeminent place that sound occupies—insists upon—in the making of poetry. Sound has, in fact, found itself all but ignored in the discourse on lyric forms, at least until 2009, when Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin edited a book of essays titled Sound of Poetry, Poetry of Sound (University of Chicago Press).  Theirs is a fascinating approach. I prefer to take an approach more craft-centered than academic, more about the poet’s tool belt and the connection between the hand and the ear. I’m concerned with the act of writing, the process of making the poem sing, less interested in an analysis of forms.

Perrrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry has been around forever (I used that book in junior high school, back in the Pleistocene). But, despite the promise of the title, one has to dig deep to find any discernible mention of sound. Perrine gets around to saying, “Great poetry engages the whole person—senses, imagination, emotion, intellect; it does not touch us merely on one or two sides of our nature.” But there’s just this tiny finger-full on “Musical Devices.” “The poet achieves musical quality in two broad ways: by the choice and arrangement of sounds and by the arrangement of accents.” And here he quotes, every so briefly, one of our past masters of sound, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “God’s Grandeur”:

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

But Perrine has this right. Hopkins knew how to make sound live and breathe in his lines, and when he couldn’t find precisely the words he needed to make his music, he made them up, like an improviser, like a Charlie Parker with a pen. Words such as “wanwood” and “leafmeal,” for example, are Hopkins’s brilliant coinages, his “Giant Steps.” But “choice and arrangement of sounds” and “arrangements of accents.” Please.  Surely there’s more to it than that.

Wallace Stevens offers a bit more help. “Poetry is words; and words, above everything else, are in poetry, sounds.” This from Wallace Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” There’s a start: words are sounds. Thank goodness. If I had space enough and time, I’d include here, well, all of Stevens.

dancing feet

Here’s what I know. Fully realized poems come from the body and appeal to the body. Words talk to each other with all of the inherent sounds and silences that life’s music contains and fails to contain, all within and held at either end by the line (that grid that gives the sentence its shape, that puts sufficient pressure on the words within to come alive). There, in those lines, guided by the gods of specificity and the muses of sensory details (those nine still hard-at-it daughters of Zeus), it is sound that gives life to a poem, gives space to its contents, gives shape to its denizens, and animates time itself, the push and pull of it, the pell-mell of it, the marking time of it, the very feel of movement is conveyed though the device of sound. Artfully done, the sounds of the line become the music of the line, and the music of the next.

Case in point: here are a few lines from Charles Wright from about mid-way through “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” from The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1999 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1999):

Outside my door, a cicada turns its engine on.
Above me the radar tower
Tunes its invisible music in:
                                                other urgencies tell their stories
Constantly in their sleep,
Other messages plague our ears
                                                under Madonna’s tongue:
The twilight twists like a screw deeper into the west.

Spiritual, mystical, available, Wright’s legacy as one of our most accomplished (and most effective) poets is assured, and that staying power earned in such important part by due reference to his ear, which hears music and makes that music on the page. His ear pays close attention to the sounds and silences that are themselves the twin gods of music. Note how the sounds make the images, intensifies them, and how the images make sound, intensify them. Note how sound, so closely heard, opens each image into surprise.

To hear deeply, we need to forget what we know of sound. We need to efface all expectation, every memory of what sounds sound like from our personal history. Think, for example, of the sound of a flute. Sweet. Metallic. Fluid. Now, listen here to the sound of Matt Malloy’s flute, how the sound works against our expectations, the sound is air and wood, becomes air, becomes wood itself:

During my many years in the practice room, I worked to perfect smooth (“legato”) connections between one note and another. Finger control. Hand control. Breath control. The object was, one note should blend seamlessly into another without any listener hearing either the movement of the fingers or in-between tones, as I went from one note to the next. Hard enough when playing a “close interval” – two nearby notes. But devilishly difficult when there’s a wider interval to bridge, and nearly impossible when the interval leaps across two or three of the clarinet’s principal “registers.” Think of the opposite intention: that fabulous glissando (upward swoop of tones) that the clarinet is privileged to make at the beginning of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” There, influenced by dusky permissiveness of the jazz club, Gershwin wanted us to hear everything, every single microtone in a two-and-a-half octave span.


That upward woosh is one of the great icons of 20th century music and one of the best known bars in music. Commissioned for an “experimental concert” by Paul Whiteman and his jazz orchestra, Rhapsody premiered with Gershwin on the piano. It was not until rehearsals of the Rhapsody began that the glissando unintentionally came into being as a joke on Gershwin: Ross Gorman (Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinettist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favorably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.” At its première (Feb. 12, 1924 at New York’s Aeolian Hall), Gorman began his glissando and electrified the house. This performance tradition has continued to please audiences ever since.

Now let’s move all the way inside the jazz club: to the flute playing of Erik Lawrence. Lawrence is perhaps better known as a sax player, but he’s equally accomplished on the flute. He does this thing where he stops blowing altogether and instead uses his fingers, or rather, the pads of his fingers, slapping down willfully upon the flute’s keys and open holes in order to produce all of the sounds of the flute’s scales and arpeggios. He even holds the flute up to the microphone so everything can be heard: not just the sound of the notes and the wind in them, but also the sound the fingers make, the sounds the pads make, and the mechanics of the flute’s hardware (silverware).  Lawrence knows that the listener hears completely fresh the tune and his improvisations on it and the percussion and even the spaces between all of these sounds – the silences.


For every sound contains silence, every silence the intimation of sound. Writing is not, after all (I argue) about speaking. It’s about listening. Shakespeare was the quintessential listener.  Listen to the master’s ear: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore” [Sonnet 60] or, for that matter, Alexander Pope: “But when loud surges lash the sounding shore, / The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.” (Sound and Sense)

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.”

panFor those craving a neat set of tools for the poet’s tool belt, here’s a link to rhetorical devices relating to the use of sound. Useful to the max, but not really what I’m talking about: though maybe it’s what I SHOULD be talking about, but I’m willful and here’s my point:  We don’t want so much, right now, the device of device, but the devotion of the ear, the rule of attention paid, as closely as though it were the eye we were experiencing the world (and therefore, ourselves). Or taste. Or touch. Or smell.

But, a suggestion more useful, really, than a list of all the rhetorical devices in the world is this: Write with the eyes closed, hear the sounds and silences with your outer ears and your inner ear, be satisfied with no word and no line until you hear it sing.

Posted in: Poetry