Michael McFee & Sounds in Poetry

Michael McFee & Sounds in Poetry Air Date: September 26, 2009

I have a poem for you. Listen to it. Then in a minute I have a question about it.

Shooting Baskets at Dusk, by Michael McFee

He will never be happier than this, lost in the perfectly thoughtless motion of shot, rebound, dribble, shot,

his mind removed as the gossipy swallows that pick and roll, that give and go down the school chimney like smoke in reverse

as he shoots, rebounds, dribbles, shoots, the brick wall giving the dribble back to his body beginning another run

from foul line, corner, left of the key, the jealous rim guarding its fickle net as he shoots, rebounds, dribbles, shoots,

absorbed in the rhythm that seems to flow from his fingertips to the winded sky and back again to this lonely orbit

of shot, rebound, dribble, shot, until he is just a shadow and a sound though the ball still burns in his vanished hands.

This poem doesn’t rhyme. It does have the same number of accented syllables in each line. You might not notice that, but you would hear some markers that set it apart as poetry. You’d hear repetition—both of phrases and of sounds. You’d probably recognize it as poetry even if I didn’t tell you it is a poem.

I notice that when people talk about poetry, if they do at all, they often lament, or differ at least, in their attitudes about what a poem should do. Whatever happened to the nice rhythmic beat, the rhyme, that made a poem so recognizable and so easy to say and remember, one camp asks. The other camp—tending to be the younger set—think rhyme and meter is from the old days, that somehow poetry has grown “beyond” that now.

Neither camp has a monopoly on the truth. Truth is, poetry didn’t start out rhyming. And on the other side, there are plenty of beautiful contemporary rhyming and metered poems.

The argument is all about the role of sound in poetry. Okay, here’s the question: What’s the difference, anyway, between poetry and prose—prose meaning the kind of linked-together words we use to describe how a vacuum cleaner works, or to explain a mysterious illness? Sometimes we say “that’s poetry” when the words sound so special or musical they seem to rise above ordinary speech. What do we mean by “special” or “above,” anyhow?

Walter Pater said “ All art aspires to the condition of music.” If so, poetry, of all the written arts, seems to be the most like music. So, another question—what is it that music does? For one thing, it gives us a baseline and return, like a dance. We like knowing we’ll come back to something familiar. It repeats phrases, as McFee’s poem does, repeating phrases—“as he shoots, rebounds, dribbles, shoots.” .

Robert Graves, the Irish poet and novelist, traced what he feels is the history of poetic sounds back to the natural world. He quotes the 17th century Irish poet Marvan, who says the poet’s harp originated when the wind played on the dried tendons of a stranded whale’s skeleton. Wind, spiritus, pneuma, is the emblem of inspiration.

He says that meter—the regular sounds in poetry—originated in the alternate beat of two hammers on an anvil.

He says two hammers five times on the anvil: ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, turns into Chaucer’s 10 syllable line:

A knight there was, and that a worthy man That fro the tyme that he first began To ryden out, he lovéd chivalrye

Anglo-Saxon poetry had been based, says Graves, on the slow push and pull of the oar—here are a few lines from the old English heroic epic, Beowulf:

Then I of myself / will make this known That awile I was held / the Heodenings’ scop, To my duke most dear / and Deor was my name.

Hear the break (called a caesura) in the middle of the line, and hear the repeated sounds on each side of the break. [read last line]. This is a non-rhyming kind of music.

Graves says Anglo-saxon poetry is unrhymed because the noise of the oarlocks doesn’t suggest rhyme. Rhyme came to England from France. (The Irish missionaries who re-civilized England after the Frankish invasion).

If Nordic verse-craft is linked to the pull of the oar, Greek verse-craft is linked, says Graves, to the ecstatic beat of feet around a rough stone altar, for Dionysus or Eros or Zeus. The dactylic drum played by a priest:

DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum Greeks also used the iamb, supposedly named in honor of the lasciviously hobbling Iambe, the sprite who tried to coax a smile from sad Demeter, mourning the loss of her daughter. Iambic meter may have begun with totem dances which imitated the hobbling of partridge or quail. (dum DUM)

Also, the spondee, derived from the gloomy double-stamp of buskined mourners, arousing some dead hero to drink the libations that they poured for them. (DUM, DUM, DUM DUM…)

Well, there you have it—the sounds we recognize in a poem that has a regular beat: the iamb (duh-DUM) , the trochee (DUM-duh), the anapest (duh-duh-DUM), and the dactyl (DUM-duh-duh). When these happen over and over, we feel a music in the line kind of like the simple sounds of ballads, hymns, or rock and roll.

Hymns? The religious connection between poetry, smithcraft, and medicine is a close one. The poet supposedly has inspired knowledge of people’s sensuous and spiritual nature. The smith—who was also a carpenter, mason, shipwright, and toolmaker—supposedly had an inspired knowledge of how to transform lifeless material into active forms.

No ancient smith would have dared to proceed without the aids of medicine and poetry. The charcoal would have been made with spells, at certain times of the year, from the timber of sacred trees, and the leather of the forge bellows, from the skin of a sacred animal ritually sacrificed. Before starting a task, the smith would purify himself with medicines and so on. If he happened to be forging a sword, the water in which it was to be tempered had to have magical properties—May dew, or spring water in which a virgin princess had washed her hair. The whole work was done to the accompaniment of poetic spells.

The spells would have matched the rhythm of the smith’s hammers. Those unequal-weight hammers.

So, poetry from its beginning seemed inspired by the gods, and the sounds were aids in making a spell to communicate with the gods inside and outside us.

The English language is more accentual than the Romance languages—we tend to stress certain syllables harder, and depend upon those stresses. So poetry in English has sometimes counted the number of syllables in a line, but more often—when a poet wants to count—he or she simply counts the accents, ignoring how many unaccented syllables there might be between them.

For example: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. …Is perfectly regular. The each accent is followed by an unaccented syllable.

But “And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair” has four stressed syllables, but the number of unstressed ones varies between them.

What has happened over time? Poets’ attitudes toward what good verse should be have varied with the flavor of the times. At the end of the Renaissance, with all the metrical spontaneity of the Elizabethans (think Shakespeare), there was a backlash. In the 18th century, poetry moved toward a very strict meter (think Alexander Pope).

Then after 1740, there was another reaction, toward impulse and surprise.

Then in the 19th century, poetry changed its tone. It became more informal, more intimate—not quite the public speech it had been. Wordsworth and Coleridge wished to write poems that sounded the way “men do speak,” as they said. Poets tended toward counting accents only, not syllables.

In the middle of the 19th century in this country, Whitman developed the free verse line, probably coming right out of the romantic strain that proceeded it.

Then in the 1920s and 30s in America, William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound tightened up Whitman’s long freely cadenced lines, making them witty, informal—the rhythms of actual American speech.

As for free verse, traditional forms, rhyme, meter, etc., we’re not progressing; we’re changing. Metrical history shows no long-term progressive tendency, and it’s a mistake to think it ought to. Meter has not become “freer” over the centuries, and freedom is not a virtue in meter, anyway—expressiveness is.

So there’s no easy answer to the question “what makes a poem,” or “what does a good poem sound like?” Part of the nature of poetry is that it keeps shifting the ground we stand on, so that we have to see things fresh. It makes us stumble so that we have to actually look down and see the rock in our path, for a change. A good poem makes music, but not music that puts us to sleep. More like music that seduces us into a whole new place, before we know what’s happened.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry