Sound and Its Fury

A few more days than I expected have passed since my last post on quatrains mostly because there are more words waiting to be said than I ever expected. I’d reach a point where I thought I could move on and then a sentence would pop up that needed more research or even some solid hours of hard thought. I’d think, ‘just throw that sentence away, Lynne, and get on with it,’ but I’m not really on a schedule and I’m finding that explaining is teaching me about poetry and about me.

Isn’t it fantastic that you can conduct research on the same device that you are writing on? So much knowledge is just a click away. Need a synonym—click; definition nailed down— click; a quick brush-up on linguistics—click, everything lies just underneath your fingertips. However the hours of hard thought are vastly different. They only develop results far away from a device and shutting one off just to stare into space is ridiculously hard and may even be a little frightening. To think hard I need quiet without interruptions. If you see me sitting in my car in the middle of an empty parking lot, don’t stop. I’m not having trouble, I’m just trying to find that quiet.

Previously I wrote of the rules or requirements of language that must be present for speakers to actually speak to each other with understanding, when I found that poetry is also bound by those rules and that those rules could be used to aid the process of writing. Since I wanted to write about things that were happening in my life, I realized that of the five requirements, sounds, meaning, rhythm/stress, order/organization and manner; meaning was the way to frame my quatrain. (For more information about those requirements that post is here.) Now as I move and shape the words into lines of verse, sounds become my most useful tools.

I love the sound of words and the feel of them as they are shaped in my mouth. To me the sounds of words are not just heard with the ears but echo with taste and texture. Words can roll softly on my lips, bump hurriedly into my teeth, slide smoothly over my tongue or rattle noisily in my throat. I believe that as we make and shape sounds with our lips, our teeth and our throat, those sounds can become associated with the shapes our mouth takes as we experience a particular taste or texture. Doesn’t the word ‘lissome’ sound like something cool melting between the roof of your mouth and your tongue–like a piece of cracked ice or a lime slush; or the word ‘stumbling’ sound like a spoonful of peanut butter hiding behind your front teeth; or the word ‘chittering’ sound like three bites of a potato chip? Hearing a sound with its echo of taste is a sensation that enhances poetry because more senses of the body are engaged in the experience.

Sound is so subtle and so seductive that it lies mostly hidden from our conscious thought. When I sit down to write a verse, I don’t think, ‘the first letters of the second and third words in lines one and four must be the same and the ninth and fourteenth words in lines two and three must rhyme,’ the words place themselves as if they know where they are supposed to go. They flow not with rhythm but with the repetition of their sounds. One word after another rushes or tumbles or even pauses by using repetition of sounds like water in a river changing its flow as the banks narrow or the riverbed rises, or as rocks cluster to form obstacles in rapids.

These types of repetition are called alliteration which is ‘the repetition of letters or sounds in adjacent or nearby words’ and usually happens with consonants, all those sounds in English that are not ‘a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y’; and rhyme which is almost the same thing but generally is a repetition of vowels (those ‘a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y’ sounds) combined with the letters forming the end of the syllable. Like the words flew and blew and rain and main or earth and dearth. Ok, now for a close reading of the sounds in my quatrain:

whose goodbye lanes do I wander
where my heart lies loved and broken
have I been so long locked frozen
inept without words to squander

The words whose and wander at the beginning and ending of the first line have a first-letter alliteration of ‘wh’ that encloses the line, almost halting the flow, but I quickly repeat this sound in the first word of the second line as the ‘wh’ in where for just a slight pull to bring the eye and ear onward to the next line. Then lies and loved in the middle of the second line forms another first-letter alliteration that is echoed by long and locked in the third line enhancing the rhyme required by the ABBA envelope form. There is also a subtler alliteration in the ‘k’ of the second line’s broken and the third line’s locked. These repetitions keep the lines tied closely together when their shift in meaning could have caused them to drift apart.

The first word of the fourth line inept is an interruption of the flow, a big boulder in the stream. The word is clumsy in the mouth as the final consonant ‘t’ makes a pause (misplaced stress is a factor too but that is for the next post) where that extra beat of time emphasizes the awkwardness and perhaps even disgust I feel at this point in the verse at the length and breadth of my unknowing. I soften this with the repetition of the ‘t’ in without and the ‘t’ in to and with another first-letter alliteration without words in nearly the same position as in lines two and three closing a satisfying one, two, three progression as a way to signal that most is forgiven and I am finding my way back to verse.

The more noticeable ending rhymes of wander and squander in lines one and four and of frozen and broken in lines two and three fulfill the ABBA requirement of the envelope rhyme. There are more subtle vowel rhymes in the verse with ‘whose, do, to’ and ‘bye, I, my, lies’ but these may simply be evidence of a too, too froufrou sound that needs to be watched more carefully next time.

And I guess that means there will be a next time so thank you for your patience and your ears,

That First Line

In the last post I explained the framework I work within. In this post I want to parse, take apart, the first quatrain to explain to others what I am doing and to give myself a chance to find what I missed the first time around. There are always surprises and a close read is informative if not generally comfortable. Ok, begin the parse.

How do I get that first line on to that empty page? How in all the world of words do I find the exact eight syllables I need? The answer has to be found in language which allows us to talk to each other and to ourselves.

A language’s function is to communicate and, mostly, linguists agree on five systems or rules that must be in place before people can understand each other. Roughly these are:
* sounds: All English speakers must agree that the letter ‘r’ represents the sound ‘arrrrrrr’ and not ‘esssssss’ otherwise there is extreme confusion over whether ‘sink’ or ‘rink’ is the appropriate plumbing in your bathroom.
* meaning: Because ‘walk’ to one poor soul could mean ‘table’ to another.
* order/organization: A sentence such as: ‘The mouse ran up the clock’ without an agreed upon order could come out as ‘Up the the ran clock mouse’ and that does not lead to any understanding.
*rhythm/stress: Asking a question requires a different stress and rhythm than making a statement and many words change meaning when one syllable or another is stressed. CONtent means ‘the thing contained’ and ‘conTENT’ means ‘satisfied.’
* manner: We do not ask a two-year old for ‘restitution’, we say: ’Give it to me.’ Nor do we (hopefully) tell a judge: ‘liar, liar pants on fire’, we say: ‘I beg to differ, Sir.’
Sounds, meaning, order/organization, rhythm/stress and manner are all linguistic theory and not too helpful until we realize that poetry must also operate within these rules and that these rules are the help we need to find that elusive first line.

The unexpected death recently of a dear friend of mine has left me breathless, wrong-footed and afraid, desperately in need of poetry. And that is the answer to my first line, I need meaning to be my starting point. As an aside I use the word ‘death’ instead of the more euphemistic ‘passing’ because this was an abrupt stop (death) and not a slow release (passing).

Together we walked the lanes and paths of her nearly-wild Indiana farm with no specific purpose in mind other than to be with the sunlight in the woods, to feel the rustle of the wind in the grasses and to hear the calls of her beloved wild birds. Never worrying too much about the clock or where our feet were taking us almost wallowing in the otherness of it all.

Of course this loss hurts but I wonder why this goodbye has to hurt so much more. Is this act of saying goodbye only for this friend as I walk through the lanes of my memories or are there other lanes I have only now perceived? This fresh grief begins to echo with remoter griefs compounding them into a much deeper, denser sadness. And this question becomes: ‘whose goodbye lanes do I wander’

The second line: ‘where my heart lies loved and broken’ is a bit more straight-forward. My heart lies in these lanes where I loved and was loved, but love was the instrument that did the breaking.

And with the word ‘broken,’ I break with the meaning of the first two lines and shift to the question: ‘How long have I not known of these echoes and how have I kept them hidden?’ I numbed them with ice, constructed a box and threw away the key.
‘have I been so long locked frozen’

And this effort to separate myself from my grief has blocked my access to the excess of words I need. Poetry only happens when there are enough words to throw away recklessly until you find the precious few. My efforts at verse were ‘inept’ because of the sparseness of the words left to me.
‘inept without words to squander’

The first quatrain:

whose goodbye lanes do I wander
where my heart lies loved and broken
have I been so long locked frozen
inept without words to squander

I still have four other rules and I guess that means a few more posts.