NOTE:  I wrote this around 1995 for students in a beginning college-level poetry-writing course.  Maybe some day I'll get around to revising it--especially my own silly sounding voice!--but for now, here it is as they got it.  It amuses me, and maybe you'll find it amusing, too.

The Sound of Poetry

Most people tend to have shape or form on their minds when they think of poetry. They expect to see relatively short lines of text, set well in from the left edge of the page, aligned on the left, though often with a regular pattern of indentations, and arranged in groups, like the stanzas of song lyrics. (They probably also expect to find rhyme and one of the four traditional rhythms, but I'd rather not worry about those things right now.).

It's true that most poems have been so formed. There seems to be something important about the visual impression of sentences broken up into lines, and the line breaks seem to affect the reader's eye in mysterious ways.

But form alone doesn't make poetry of words and sentences--though it can make verse. Arranging a work of philosophy or psychology or mathematics in the shape of a poem might make it verse, but won't make it poetry. Contrary to the popular perception, verse is neither necessary, nor sufficient for poetry. Other things are needed.

One of those other things is sound. Even a great poem on a page isn't poetry. You have to get it off the page and into the air to make it poetry. You have to say it to make it poetry.

But it has to be spoken RIGHT--or else it comes alive as a monster and destroys the village and eats the babies!

Here's an example of a poem that can become a monster. This used to be quite a popular poem. It was included in lots of schoolbooks until the middle of the twentieth century. Millions of children learned it by heart. But for most of us who live in America today, it's a very dead poem. Let's see it we can breathe some life back into it. Here it is:


Photo of Emily Dickinson
I like to see it lap the Miles--
And lick the Valleys up--
And stop to feed itself at Tanks--
And then--prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains--
And supercilious peer
In Shanties--by the sides of Roads--
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its Ribs
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid--hooting stanza--
Then chase itself down Hill--

And neigh like Boanerges--
Then--punctual as a Star
Stop--docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door--

--Emily Dickinson, c. 1862



I encountered this poem for the first time in the fifth grade. We must have been studying prosody at that time--at any rate, I remember the teacher saying that it was in iambic tetrameter and making us emphasize the rhythm heavily as we read it aloud. It sounded more or less like this: My fifth-grade reading of the poem. (This requires a Real Audio sound player.)


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I don't know how anyone could miss the iambic tetrameter in that reading.

But whoa! I don't know how anyone could understand the poem, reading it that way!

Let's consider the SUBJECT of the poem. What's the "it" in it? What did she like to see lap the miles? Well, Dickinson didn't give the poem a title, but she was probably thinking of something such as "Iron Horse."

As I said, this is a dead poem for most Americans today, but in Dickinson's time, the iron horse was THE thing that fired people's imaginations. (By the way, I hope you'll forgive me these lame puns.) It was more than transportation; it transported people! Just imagine the effect it must have had on Dickinson. She was born the same year that the first commercial locomotives began running in America. About five years after she wrote this poem, the transcontinental railroad line was completed, and you could go all the way from New York to San Francisco in just two weeks--drawn by an iron horse!

Half a century after she wrote this poem, THE thing was the horseless carriage. What is it today? The World Wide Web!

But in Dickinson's life, it was the iron horse.

The term "iron horse" is a metaphor, of course. Until the steam engine, horsepower came from--duh--horses, and carriages and freight wagons were drawn by real, live horsepower. So it was natural to think of a steam locomotive in horse terms.

But how do iron horses sound? CERTAINLY not ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM! Real horses don't either. They have several gaits--rhythms--but the best known is probably the gallop, which (as anyone familiar with The Lone Ranger or "The William Tell Overture" knows) goes ta-da-DUM ta-da-DUM ta-da-DUM DUM DUM. (Q: Where does the Lone Ranger take his garbage? A: To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!)

And how does an iron horse go?

What--you've never heard an iron horse?

Aw, shoot!
Aw, shucks!

Pish, tush and
shoot and pshaw!

SUREly you know SUREly you know
SURELY you know SUREly you know
SUREly you know HOW a choo-choo
CHOO-choo choo-choo CHOO-choo train should
go!

woo wOOOOoo

Iron horse with fire'n his belly, rarin' ta go. Woo! Woooo-weee! Ya can hear his digestion, fer cryin' out loud! Ya can hear as the whee-uls run over the joints in the track.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack...

	The wheels are singin' to the railroad track,
"And if you go you can't come back,
If you go you can't come back,
And if you goooooooo
you can't
come
back."

My grandfather grew up on a farm outside Cleveland, Ohio, and he loved the trains. He rode one into the city every morning to dental school. When I was very little, he and my grandmother lived about half a mile from the main rail line east to New York. There were still a few steam engines on that line, and at night you could hear the whistles and when the wind was right, the chuffing of the steam as it blasted out the stacks of the big locomotives. When the driving wheels lost traction the steady chuff-chuff-chuff changed suddenly to CH-CH-CH-ch-ch-ch-chuff-chuff.

My grandfather used to take me to the station sometimes, just to see the Nickel Plate Special come in. He'd buy a pack of Black Jack gum and we'd go out on the platform. Big black engine with shiny silver-colored trim. Black smoke. Sudden unexpected jets of steam spurting sideways from hidden valves--PSHHHH--lifting the skirts of the prettiest girls, the engineer and fireman high up in the cab, grinning, waving. Huge heavy rods connecting driving wheels the height of a man.

He tacked sandpaper to two blocks of wood so I could make the sound myself: SHHHH shhhh shhhh shhhh SHHHH shhhh shhhh shhhh...

Okay, enough reminiscing. Let's try that old, dead iron horse poem again and see if it still has some fire in it. Can you hear it now? Hear it now (requires Real Audio).


--Another non-commercial message.

Download Real Audio.
There are versions of the Real Audio player for Windows and Macintosh. It installs easily, and it's free.
Look at a text transcript of the sound file.
This is no big deal--just big letters and little.
Listen to a train song.
Real Audio again. Not great fidelity.  If you like it, buy the CD if you can figure out who recorded it.  I've forgotten.

And now, back to our program...


Hear it now?


All right, now YOU try it.


One of the remarkable things about this poem is that it has two rhythms. The basic, underlying rhythm--the one most people find right away--is iambic tetrameter. But on top of it is that four-beat CHOO-choo-choo-choo rhythm that fits the sense of the poem. I like to think of the poem this way, just as I like to think of it as using the two-things-at-once iron horse metaphor.

Ah, well, even though we've breathed a little life into this poem, it isn't really a viable poem for our time. The iron horse isn't completely extinct, true, but in North America it's certainly an endangered species. You find them only in zoos here. (They're alive and well in China, though, where thousands of them haul most of the freight and passengers for one-fifth the world's population.)


Okay, that's a bit about sound in poetry. There's a lot more one could say on the subject, of course, but...


For Dickinson, it was the iron horse. But what's THE thing for YOU? What are YOU writing about right now?

--Don


P.S. In case you're curious, here's what Dickinson's handwriting looked like. (It's the first page of a different poem.)

Emily Dickinson MS


--Don Maxwell




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