The Sounds of Poetry

by Robert Pinsky

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1554

In the current plethora of reference and writer’s guidebooks on the craft of poetry, it might seem that U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s short exploration of sounds in poetic diction and line structure is an unnecessary addition to the growing stacks of advice for writers. As Pinsky points out in his introduction, his tightly written guidebook (just over one hundred pages of content) is not intended to be a standard reference work. It is not likely to become a textbook for teachers seeking instructional material covering the range of terms and techniques all aspiring poets should know.

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Instead, the Newton Corner, Massachusetts, professor’s purpose is to direct young poets to the importance of sounds in the building blocks of English language verse. While Pinsky claims in his introduction that he does not dwell on technical terms— and, indeed, his discussions on literary terminology are brief and select when he is not inventing his own interpretive language—this is a book of technical information meant for practical, serious study and not for quick reading. Alongside his two-volume 1976 set, The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions, which explored the context of contemporary writing, Pinsky’s new book of instruction might seem slight if not for this very practicality. Moving logically from stress, accent, pitch, and duration in syllables to the importance of repeated sounds in blank and free verse, The Sounds of Poetry will interest, first, writers interested in creating music in their lines and, second, readers wishing to appreciate the aural qualities of verse more fully. Unlike Pinsky’s previous critical works, this study does not dwell on the meaning of poetry nor on historical or cultural contexts but simply guides newcomers to verse through the basics of sound, simplifying and clarifying an aspect of verse craft often lost in the forest of encyclopedic overviews.

Written in a warm, personal tone as intimate as his subject, each chapter of Pinsky’s study focuses on simple aspects of sonics, beginning with syllables, sentence syntax, line structure, and then stanzaic organization of lines. Along the way, he makes useful if not original observations, such as how line structure is not necessarily the proper unit for reading verse. At first glance, this truism might seem obvious to most experienced readers. Yet Pinsky moves from simple points into valuable teaching, as when he advises poets to first write out the complete poem, then determine the appropriate arrangement of line breaks. He clearly shows how such techniques have given past poems energy and drama, citing examples from more than fifty masters, including William Carlos Williams (“To a Poor Old Woman”), William Butler Yeats (“Leda and the Swan”), William Wordsworth (The Prelude), Emily Dickinson (“1068”), T.S. Eliot (“Little Gidding”), Elizabeth Bishop (“At the Fishouses”), Thomas Nash (“Litany in Time of Plague”), Thomas Campion (“Now Winter’s Nights Enlarge”), William Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Richard III, Sonnet 30), John Milton (“Lycidas”), Philip Larkin (“Church Going”), Louise Bogan (“Song for the Last Act”), Robert Browning (“My Last Duchess”) and Robert Frost (“Mending Wall,” “To Earthward”). Such discussions will prove useful for English teachers seeking material to demonstrate what separates the language of verse from English prose, and the volume’s index will assist teachers searching for insights on particular poems. For some readers, however, such choices—clearly an outgrowth of Pinsky’s teaching of graduate English courses at Boston University—may seem top-heavy in traditional voices, with little usage of contemporary writers. For most educators, however, Pinsky’s choices will clearly demonstrate the points he is making and perhaps underline why such writers are important models for a new generation. Such choices should not surprise readers who are familiar with Pinsky’s previous essays and prose studies, as one of his constant themes is the continuity of tradition. While this point is not stated in The Sounds of Poetry, it is clearly a reason for his eschewing of modern voices.

Other general observations include Pinsky’s explanations of the importance of active and specific verbs. Again, this information is neither innovative nor underdiscussed elsewhere, but such material is the foundation established before moving on to more advanced studies of content, including the grammatical subpatterns that go into lines. Pinsky explains the musicality of pauses by using lines from Ben Jonson’s “To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of That Noble Pair” and Sylvia Plath’s “Sleep in the Mojave Desert.” Pinsky is perhaps most useful when he explores the meaning of pentameter in the English language. As when he notes the overemphasis on metrical feet in the explication of verse (demonstrating that no two feet are alike, whatever the measurement ascribed to them), he corrects misnomers about the prevalence of pentameter in English, particularly in twentieth century American speech. In this section, he uses prose passages from William Faulkner and W. E .B. DuBois and verse by Shakespeare and John Keats to show variances in the allegedly dominant line form. He notes the use of pentameter in the modern ballads of Thomas Hardy and Edwin Arlington Robinson but shows how enjambment and end rhyme keep their lines musical rather than formulaic.

More general themes include his emphasis on poetry as a body art that emanates from sounds in the throat and larynx to reach the medium—the body of the audience. This body art is achieved, Pinsky believes, through the likeness and difference in sounds, not only in rhymes but also in the other common poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance. His discussion on rhyme is the most pedantic in the book, and the most out-of-place for the general reader, notably when he attempts to make inference from words from German and Latin roots in lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.” His theories here may intrigue linguists, but his intended audience is likely to find his conclusions neither helpful nor illuminating. Pinsky readily admits his points here have nothing to do with the actual composition of the verse, and so this lengthy aside was perhaps a means to show experienced poets that he has more to offer than basic information for beginners.

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Few of his examples are dealt with in length or thoroughness, although his explication of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” opens new avenues for reading the poem. As he only touches on his chosen examples, most readers should find themselves looking up the original poems for reading aloud to see how their perceptions accord with Pinsky’s. Alongside his discussion of pentameter, he is perhaps most helpful when using blank verse to open new appreciation for the craftsmanship of free verse and how it can be measured in terms of syllables rather than feet. Here, Pinsky re-emphasizes the use of rhyme for memory and stresses that free verse is a different medium that came from the same roots as traditional poetry. Once more, he cites prose examples such as Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family(1976) to point out poetry’s use in keeping stories alive. In this most advanced of his discussions, Pinsky demonstrates what he learned of metrical engineering from his work translating Polish poet Czesław Miłosz’s The Separate Notebooks (1984) and his prize-winning 1994 translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

In his final pages, Pinsky first reverts to reiterating simple advice but then takes a puzzling turn. In his conclusion, Pinsky advises young poets to pay attention to great examples, but his section of notes including brief definitions of some terms, mixed with his index, is an unusual addition that may confuse readers.

Pinsky, author of the significant verse collections Sadness and Happiness (1975), An Explanation of America (1979), History of My Heart(1984), The Want Bone (1990), and The Figured Wheel: New and Selected Poems, 1966- 1996 (1996), has not shed much direct light on his own poetry in his new study. The Sounds of Poetry, as a contribution to the teaching of writing, is not a groundbreaking, innovative approach but is a work that belongs in all general libraries. As Pinsky himself notes in his introduction, further and more detailed discussions of English poetic structures can be found in Alfred Corn’s The Poem’s Heartbeat(1997), Harvey Gross’s Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (1968), John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason (1981), James McAuley’s Versification: A Short Introduction (1983), and John Thompson’s The Founding of English Metre (1961). Students seeking comprehensive analysis of all aspects of world verse can find indispensable assistance in the 1993The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. However, Pinsky’s book should prove a helpful introduction for poets whose only notion of sound in literature has been shaped by the vocal dynamics of live performance prevalent in coffee-house readings, poetry “slams,” and open-mike competitions. The Sounds of Poetry shifts the modern emphasis from the stage back to the printed page where most composition originates and may prove of special interest precisely because the book may reach an audience wanting to succeed on the podium as well as in print. Further, such contributions may add helpful significance to the office of poet laureate, particularly in its charter to contribute to the education of the young.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, September 1, 1998, p. 57.

Library Journal. CXXIII, August, 1998, p. 92.

The Nation. CCLXVII, September 21, 1998, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, August 2, 1998, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly. CXLV, August 31, 1998, p. 72.

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