What’s the Most Important Sound?

by Dawn Potter

Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.

In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:

farewell:
but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
then,
in my other poems
I will remember you

No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.

Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.

Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:

The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.

The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.

For contrast, look at the opening of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.

In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

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