This is the third in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.
Words have more than meaning.
Words have sound, and how words sound affect the quality of something written.
For example, you could use either the word “moist” or “damp” to describe the armpits of a character’s shirt; the meaning — slightly wet — is about the same. And yet the sound of moist, which causes a pressing together of lips to create the mm, a pursing to form the oy, and then a sinister baring of teeth for the soft and hard st, evokes more disgust than the simple, matter-of-fact damp with its softer consonants.
D and p, in fact, are mutes, and m is a liquid. These are terms for types of consonants, grouped into what Mary Oliver calls “families of sounds” in A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994).
Sounds of words matter — Oliver compares the nouns stone and rock and the commands “Hush!” and “Please be quiet!” — because, as she writes, “there is, or can be, a correlation between the meaning, connotation, and actual sound of the word.”
I love this book for its clarity, simplicity, and helpfulness. At different times in my life, especially my teens and mid-30s, I have had a great impulse to read and write poetry, with scant formal training in it, and by that I mean no college or grad school poetry workshops. I did, as an adult, take a few classes in poetry through the Brookline Center for Adult Education, where I learned and wrote a lot. (One doesn’t have to get credits to get educated, I say.)
It was around this time I encountered Oliver’s Poetry Handbook for the first time. Over the years, whether I’ve been writing poetry or not, it has been a helpful reference on sound, meter, rhyme, and line breaks. Even if you are more a poetry reader than writer, this book can help you understand how words and combinations of them can do their work.
On rhythm, she writes:
The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.
On variation, which is related, she writes:
Lines of good poetry are apt to be a little irregular. A prevailing sense of rhythm is necessary, but some variation enhances the very strength of the pattern… Variation wakes us up with its touch of difference, just as a cadence of drums in a marching band keeps two things going at the same time: a strict and regular beat and a few contrapuntal accents, flourishes, and even silences… Within the poem, irregularities may occur for the sake of variation; they may also occur because of stresses required by the words themselves, for accuracy, for emphasis, etc.
In the past few days, I’ve re-read all 122 pages of this short handbook and have been reminded that the book is as quietly encouraging to the writer as it is informative. She offers some thoughts on reading (start with contemporary poetry and move backward to metrical verse); revision (it is “wise to keep a little of the metaphoric glitter in one’s pocket” and cut excess words and images prudently); workshops (“the best thing… is that people learn there that they can change, they can write better and differently”); and solitude.
I especially like the chapter on free verse, which she calls “Verse That Is Free.” If I were teaching an intro to poetry class, I would have students read this because, in her characteristically patient way, Oliver discusses what makes contemporary poetry more than just a bunch of sentences with odd line breaks, which is the reductive view often held by new or some-time readers of non-metrical verse. She insists:
Prose writers, too, can benefit from reading her book. Prose has sound to readers, whether one likes to take on that responsibility or not. Word choice and rhythm matter, which is why first-off, stream-of-thought writing is often cringe-worthy when you read it. Your mind hears its awkwardness as written language.
Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is.
Oliver says she revises each poem 40 to 50 times. Beauty comes through effort.
Her book presents both tools and motivation. Even though I think of her book as a guide, there is a palpable yet gentle conviction to her voice that stirs in me again the desire to write poems and to take out the unfinished, promising ones and tinker with them again. Poetry and its sounds matter.
Fourth in the series: Peter Selgin’s essay, “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” which reminds me that the reversals and constraints of a life are not barriers to making art and can even be the source of it.
Photograph of the poet at top is by Josh Reynolds, for the Los Angeles Times. Photograph of the poet with Molly Malone Cook is by Barbara Savage Cheresh. For a bizarre photo of the poet with Maria Shriver, go here: link.