Friday, June 06, 2008

Suggested Blog Topic-- Finding the Music in Poetry

I'm a little behind in my suggested blog topics, but here's one I received last week that I've been meaning to blog about--

RE: Ideas for blog topics--

In your blog post about the Skagit River Poetry Festival 2008, I found your comments about Elizabeth Austen's suggestion of reading through a poem saying only the vowels especially intriguing. I wondered if you would elaborate on this. While I've heard and read about the musicality of writing poetry this business about the vowels is totally new to me. I've never heard it put in those terms. I guessing this may in fact explain a lot.

****Music through vowels has been taught throughout the years. I'm sure it can't just be a NW thang, though I know many NW poets who teach this in their classes including David Wagoner, who originally learned it from Theodore Roethke.

In David Wagoner's play, FIRST CLASS, which is a play about the teaching career and life and mental breakdown of Theodore Roethke, he writes these lines as if Roethke is teaching a class at the University of Washington. I'll share them with you here because I think Wagoner captures this idea on how to achieve music in your poems so well---


"A poet should have the same controls and develop the same skills a good singer has--tempo, pitch, volume, intensity, timbre, breathing, not breathing,--also known as silence. The big trouble is you have to be your own composer and your own accompanist. Every poem, just like every song, is a series of vowels interrupted by consonants or by silence. And those vowels can have their own music and their own meaning, and they'd be have something to do with what you're saying or at least had better not interfere with it. Blake began a poem, "Truly, my Satan, thou art but a dunce!" Do you hear him start disdainfully high and come down the scale with a thud? I can say--"

(He comes from the top of the scale to the lowest note.)

"Even if we try to sell that grandfather clock, who knows how much dough to hold out for? Ugh!" Or the other way 'Who would know aught for art must first feel at his ease." And watch out for those high nasal e's. They can be deadly to the music of your poem. Why do you suppose Shakespeare had the three witches sing,'When shall we three meet again?' through their crooked, hooked noses? He wanted them to sound like witches. So don't write lines like, "The aspidistra has fungus gnats" unless you want to be a witch.

You don't think this matters? Does color matter in painting? Do pitch and tempo matter to a musician? Can a playwright ask an actor to go out on the stage and say, "I'm terribly angry," and expect the audience to share the feeling? Herrick began a poem, 'Now is the time when all the lights wax dim." Do you hear how slow, how beautifully controlled that is? and Yeasts, whose ear was marvelous wrote, 'All things can tempt me from this craft of verse.' You have to of slow or you'll strangle. Alexander Pope told us, "When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,/The line too labors, and the words move slow.'

* * *

In a recent workshop with David W. he said the best poets these days are writing poems that *sound* like what they are about. If you're reading about soldiers walking through the mud, your poem is wet and heavy sounds, like mud slowing you down and sticking to your boots. If you're writing long lines with a fast beat, you are not honoring your poems' subject. Your voice does not compliment the poem.

Vowels are emotional sounds. The ooohs and aahhs of life. Let them be the sounds that carry your words and thoughts.

If you're wanting to show a peaceful scene and your poems if full of C/K sounds-- chuck and muck, jack and clack, your poem is too noisy for your subject. Now, if you're writing about gunfire, a riot, or chaos and your poem is C/K sounds, you may be onto something.

My best advice for finding music in your poems is read your poems out loud. Read them to your cat, your walls, your space heater. But make your voice say every word. Do not just rely on what your poem looks like on paper. Say it again and again out loud. You will find the extra beat, the word that doesn't fit, the places where you lose the poetry and move into prose. You will find rhymes you didn't hear before and maybe you'll add more, or you'll carry a sound from one line to another. Keep reading your aloud until there is nothing more you can cut out, until it slips from your tongue and you realize, what you've said could not be a paragraph, but could only be a poem.
David W is famous in our parts for saying that many of today's poets are writing "arranged prose." I thought it was insulting the first time I read it, but what he's saying is--

You can just add
a line break

or a stanza break

and make what you're written
a poem.

The more we remember this as poets, the better our poems will be.
Read just the vowels of your poem. Read just the consonants.

There is a reason William Carlos Williams wrote Red Wheelbarrow to look like this--

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white


Can you hear the music in the beats of the poem?

So much depends UPON, a red wheel BARROW, glazed with rain WATER, besides the white CHICKENS.

It's got a nice beat and you can dance to it. We've got--wheel, water, white. We've got glAzed with rAin. We've got besIdes the whIte/ chIckens. We've got A rEd whEEl. Vowels sounds playing together. Lines that break to make the tempo. He's controlling how this poem is spoken.

* * *

Vowels are an easy way to control the mood of your poem or to compliment the subject of your poem. Yes, if you want to be a witch-- It's easy, sneek a few eee's in, see how easy breezy it is to create an eery high pitched sound. Or go low, with the oh, O, row row row your boat, try to say that as a witch.

So to find the music in your poems, you must speak your poems and listen.

Hope that helps!

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