The Mouth of the Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

Often, we’ll talk about the ear of a poem—its aurality, how the poem sounds. We talk about alliteration and rhyme and the elusive “flow” of the poem and figure out that poems are about how they sound in our ear as listeners. And why not? We go to poetry readings, sit in the audience, pay rapt attention to the sounds of each poem. Even books about poetry writing (and poetry reading, for that matter) talk about the sounds of poetry. Poems make sounds. We hear them.

But that’s not solely the case. Poems make sounds because we as writers make them. More and more I think about the orality of the poem: not how the poem effects the ear of the listener, but how it effects the mouth of the speaker. This is alien, I believe, because we often read other people’s poems silently and so our mind’s mouth is doing the work, and our mind’s ear is hearing the sounds. Speaking a poem is dramatically different than reading it silent. We become aware of the complexity of breath, of how our mouths and tongue move in the making of words.

Consider, for instance, the opening stanza of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” by speaking it aloud:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The sibilant easy sounds that start us off immediately are followed by a dental T sound forcing our tongue high in the mouth. Furthermore, “too” carries with it an implied pause. Line two moves between plosives, which force our mouths to shut and push breath outward, “Put” and “BlueBlack” and guttural K sounds, in which our mouths are slightly open and again we’re forcing breath out: “Clothes, “blaCK,” and “Cold.” These force us to stop, shift our mouths and breath. That line ends on the dental D sound which forces our teeth shut as we inhale. These dental sounds continue in combination with gutturals in line three forcing our mouths to open and shut, particularly at the end of the line as we must go high in the mouth for the long A sound, followed by a guttural and a dental. It continues like this moving our mouths high and low, making our lips, teeth, tongue, and breathing “labor” in order to reflect the physical labor of the father’s work, and the conflicts in the house.

This is important to the poem as how Hayden shifts his use of sounds as the speaker’s attitude toward his father softens. Say the last stanza aloud and you will hear my point:

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Yes, there are numerous types of sounds here too, but their relationship to each other is not nearly as close together, our mouths don’t have to perform acrobatics in order to say them. As William Packard puts it, “the secret of effective [poetic] closure is more musical than meaningful, and has more to do with the resolution of syntax and diction than it has to do with imparting any pretentious philosophical summary of the way this universe works.”
We see something similar when a poet uses too much alliteration so that certain lines might feel like a tongue twister when we try to say them aloud. Several times in recent workshops students have had trouble speaking lines in their poems due to the “tongue twister effect.” Their response to the obvious question invariably is something akin to this: “I don’t read my poems aloud when I’m writing or revising.”

Looking at another famous poem, we can see that not only is the relationship of consonant and vowel sounds important to the orality of the poem, but the line itself and how we break it is crucial to our ability to speak a poem. Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous “The Pool Players” teaches us a lot about how a line break, enjambed, forces our breath to change.

We real cool. We
Skip school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Consider how the enjambment happens right after a new sentence begins, forcing a hesitancy at the line break immediately after a full stop. We are forced to reconsider our normal breathing in speaking a sentence. Adding to the internal rhyme and the occasional alliteration, we have a chronic reaffirmation of the lives of these “seven at the golden shovel,” lives that are cut short along with the line at the poem’s end on “Die soon.” We’ve conditioned our bodies in the seven previous lines to expect to take another breath with a hesitancy, a breath that never comes.

Line is often all about breath. Again, we’re left considering the orality of the poem—what it takes physically to speak the line as given. We might hear cadence and the variable foot, but just as we hear rhythm in the speech of people in a restaurant or a song, we have to be able to speak/sing the line of the poem. This is best exemplified in “Howl” and how much breath it takes to say just the opening line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Having read Ginsburg’s poem aloud several times, I’m keenly aware of the physical experience of reading it: it’s akin to speaking a marathon, and not only because of its length so much as because of the length of its lines. Although there are pauses in the line that allow us to catch quick gulps of air, the line refuses to let us actually breathe. Remember, a howl, is one long exhalation. By poem’s end we’re “beat.”

All of which to say that reading poems is not a passive act of listening to the voice in our head, it is a physically interactive act. The best poets are considering not just the cadences of their words and phrases, but the biophysical experience of speaking those lines and how those active sounds help make meaning. If we agree with that poetic cliché that “form enacts meaning” then we need to consider the form not only in terms of line and stanza, fixed and free verse, but the form of our mouths as we speak the words, the lines.