"From Blank to Blank":
Excerpts from a Work in Regress
The final essay—"Vocation According to Dickinson"—takes up the main subject touched throughout the book and uses Emily Dickinson as a guide through the sometimes bewildering conflation of vocation and career. I left out of this essay a comparison of the etymologies of the two words. "Vocation," as most readers of this book know, means "a divine calling to a religious life." A "career" is a racecourse.
—Michael Ryan, Preface, A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing
A free will. But what is it free from?
A free spirit. But who is it free of?
A self-inflicted wound. But where is this self that has inflicted the damage?
To focus on the phenomenon of musical silence is analogous to deliberately studying the spaces between trees in a forest: somewhat perverse at first, until one realizes that these spaces contribute to the perceived character of the forest itself, and enable us to speak coherently of 'dense' growth or 'sparse' vegetation. In other words, silence is not nothing. It is not the null set. Silence is experienced both as meaningful and as adhering to the sounding position of the musical object.
—Thomas Clifton, "The Poetics of Musical Silence"
An interesting and insightful quote, I think—although (as Marcel Cobussen points out) Clifton tends to see silence as only having importance in its relation to sound, unlike someone like John Cage, who sees silence as a presence in its own right: "We should listen to the silence with the same attention that we give to the sounds."
I read through Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide today.
Too many poetry books (and teachers) approach meter as though it were a clearly defined binary system of equally stressed and equally unstressed syllables. Robert Pinsky is largely successful at showing how to appreciate the rich variety of sounds in the English language while avoiding a lot of technical terms and descriptions. It’s important to keep in mind that this is not intended as an overview of the basics of poetry, but a “brief guide” to one aspect of how poetry works. He discusses rhythm and meter (including the effects of duration and pitch), rhyme and its variations, and blank and free verse. There were a few aspects of the book I didn’t fully agree with. Pinsky treats all meter as variations of iambic. He includes some elements of word choice (particularly etymology) that are not convincingly related to sounds. And his tone is at times too simplistic—not condescending, exactly, but annoyingly dumbed down. However, this short book is well worth reading to get a poet’s perspective on the importance of sound in verse. I was also disappointed that Pinsky didn't more deeply explore sound as metaphor, but that's a subject for another time.
I think one of the best examples of the unity of form and content in poetry is Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane." The poem is free verse—it has no set rhymes, no set meter, no set line or stanza length—but it is as tightly structured as any sonnet. The tools that Roethke uses to organize the poem are both thematic and auditory (though I reject the distinction between the two). Most obviously, the use of natural imagery, personification, and animism binds the lines of the poem together, just as it suggests the speaker's idealized sense of the relationship between Jane and the natural world. Roethke also incorporates a variety of slant rhymes, internal rhymes, consonance, assonance, and alliteration to provide cohesion within the poem.
In fact, the sounds of the poem are divided into two strains that are woven throughout the poem, like musical themes, echoing the two qualities of the subject. A combination of short (ĭ, ĕ) and high frequency (ē, ī) vowel sounds, along with liquid (r and l) and nasal consonants (m and n) provide an aural sense both of Jane's etherealness ("I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils") and of her energy ("the light syllables leaped for her"). In contrast, clusters of low, open vowel sounds (ō, ow, ooh), fricatives (s, sh, th), and stops (d, k, t, p) slow the poem down while suggesting Jane's seriousness and the depression she was prone to: "Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth . . ." As in the most sophisticated music, these two aural themes variously complement each other, contradict each other, and inevitably overlap.
Of course, not every poem requires as tightly structured a sound as "Elegy for Jane"—in many poems such tight cohesiveness would clash with the theme—but in this poem the sound becomes an expressive metaphor for both the feelings of the speaker (struggling to maintain control while he is falling apart) and his awkward positioning just outside society's prescribed circle of ritualistic mourning. The relation of sound to meaning (or, rather, the extent to which the sound is the meaning), and the degree to which that relationship (or unity) controls the organization of the poem, break down the artificial distinction between open and closed forms of verse.