I was prepared to write about teaching Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac today, but the Poem of the Day (by e. e. cummings) on poetryfoundation.org seized my imagination immediately, so I've decided to share it instead.
We all know that not all poems, especially modern and contemporary ones, are lyrical. Not all poets have "an ear," and some who do, go for deliberately discordant aural effects. I often admire the ideas or images in such poems. I tend to enjoy William Carolos Williams's poems, for example, despite their sonic effects rather than because of them. A poem that engages my ear as well as my mind, however, makes my heart beat a little faster—usually before I've tuned my left brain to its contents—and when the images or ideas of such a poem also engage me immediately ("the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls") then I'm not going anywhere, not even back to my hero Aldo Leopold, until I've spent some time with the poem.
I'm always left a little stunned by the ways cummings uses line breaks, and in this slice of social commentary about the gentlewomen of Cambridge, delivered briefly with longish lines, the music almost overwhelms the content. Almost, I say, because I expect I'll be mulling over this closing image for a while: "…. the Cambridge ladies do not care, above / Cambridge if sometimes in its box of /sky lavender and cornerless, the /moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy." Click here to read the poem.
Jennifer Sperry Steinorth wrote this comment, which for some reason got lost in cyber space so I'm adding it:
Hi Alison–I've recently been reading Cummings biography and working my way (slowlyslowly) through his works. What fun! He is a playful cat and no mistake–such a pleasure to read your take on those fine Cambridge ladies. And I'm interested in this notion of the discordant lyric, speak more on that topic, will you?
Jen, I'm still thinking about your question. I wonder if melodious, in a poem, is a matter of personal taste. I tend to think, not totally. I think it has to do with rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and the like–meter, too, of course. Would you mind sharing the title of the cummings biography you're reading? I really enjoyed sitting next to you the other evening, near the great blue expanse that is Grand Traverse Bay. Funny how we both seized similar things from the air (index cards and gmail)!
Mike Shaw wrote this comment on Facebook: "A potent reminder of the perils of a ‘comfortable mind.’" Thanks, Mike.
"E. E. Cummings, a biography"by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno is the book I mentioned, of which Billy Collins wrote, "Revealing, exhaustive, and surely definitive–a bold, upper case study of America's notorious lower-case poet."
Thanks for your thoughts on lyricism. I do think there must be quite a bit of taste involved–I would definitely consider Williams to be a poet with an ear–I think of Danse Russe and Asphodel–and Ol' Bunk's Band–to me, he is quite musical–though there's definitely a sense of Jazz–it's not predictable music and sometimes it's very percusive and brass–like a big brass band! This subject makes me think of Stravinsky–who I love–for the way he makes music out of radically immeasured phrases–out of discord (it seems to me)– I can't always take listening to him–he demands too much–but when I am ready, I am in love.
But I also agree that it's not just personal taste…(I am so intrigued by this subject–something I've thought about a fair bit, but differently and as I said in person, your observations have really set my mind racing). I am going to keep an eye out for poems whose music I can't find or find abrasive (in the worst sense). I would love to hold them up and say "who hears this music? Anyone?" And can a thing be a poem if it has no music? Maybe you'll do the same–send me poems you find unmelodious vs ones you do? I would love that. Thanks for this blog…I'll stay tuned…
Thanks for all these good thoughts Jen. I went to some dictionaries to investigate the word "lyricism" and I was reminded that it denotes "an intense personal quality expressive of feeling or emotion in an art (as in poetry and music)" and "exuberance," as well as "songfulness." I (and I think you?) am really talking about songfulness here: the music of the poems. . . but I wanted to doublecheck that with you. Yes, I'll send you poems where I don't hear music, by which I think I mean, I find no tune, no rhythm, just random sounds. But with words written in free verse–what does that even mean? and I guess that's what you're asking. One answer that occurs to me: lines where sense trumps sound and the poet has let it.