Metallic Leaps, or the Pleasures of Listening

There’s so much joy and revelation to be had by immersing yourself into the world of a poem through its sounds.

Today’s newsletter is written by my dear wonderful friend Lauren Winchester, who is also a beautiful poet. She received her MFA in poetry from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, and her poems have appeared in many literary journals. Here are two of her poems that I love and think about often: “Not by Bread Alone” (2015) and “Near-Disasters of Early Childhood” (2017)

When I started to seriously study poetry in college, I was overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of what I hadn’t read. As an English major focusing on Milton, I was becoming well-versed in the Early Modern period, but there were so many contemporary poets I was looking forward to reading: John Ashbery, Louise Glück, C.S. Giscombe, Tomaž Šalamun. It was both exciting and overwhelming. I decided to listen to recordings of poets reading their own work as a way to expose myself to more poetry during the rare hours I wasn’t already occupied with work and school—while brewing ice tea, applying mascara, cleaning my shower. It was a convenient way to add more poetry into my day, but it also became the means through which I discovered my favorite poets.

There’s a kind of enchantment that happens when you encounter the music of poetry being read aloud—you form an aural bond with the words being read to you; they pass through your ears into your very being. The experience of absorbing poetry is visceral. Listening allows you to pay special attention to poetic elements that make themselves known aurally, such as repetition, rhyme, consonance, or assonance. You can focus on the rhythm of one word following the next, hear intensity build, or appreciate the impact of a well-placed pause. There’s so much joy and revelation to be had by immersing yourself into the world of a poem through its sounds.

I get a thrill when I’m reading a poem online and I see a triangle “play” button somewhere on the page. I’ve recently been obsessed with the Danish poet Inger Christensen, and one poem I can’t get out of my head is Blue Poles,” read here by translator Susanna Nied. I’m the world’s biggest sucker for slant rhyme with assonance, and this poem is full of such delights. With “Blue Poles” I’m able to find my footing first in the linking sounds that are threaded throughout the stanzas. Meaning (and pleasure!) is transmitted through sound, not only through logical connection.

Just listen to this first stanza:

            Tonight, away begins to go

            farther away, and the dream

            what do we know of the dream

            metallic leaps Jackson Pollock

            silvery streams Jackson Pollock

            I gaze across the sea

I’m struck by the intermingled hard and soft sounds. The assertive cks of Jackson Pollock enclosing the gauzy s’s of “silvery streams.” The firm z in gaze dissolving into the double ss of across and then the s in sea. Consider how the repeating words “away,” “dream,” and “Pollock,” as well as the reoccurring “ea” sounds of “dream,” “leaps,” “streams,” and “sea” create a type of sonic linking that coheres the poem and gives it a concreteness even as it seethes with abstraction. The sounds of poetry are like the metallic leaps of splattered paint on Pollock’s canvas: slivers of beauty you can appreciate individually or, stepping back to look at the entire poem, as pieces of a functioning whole. 

I’ve found that listening to “difficult” poems can be a new way to gain access to what might otherwise seem obscure. Take, for example, Anne Carson. Carson is the inscrutable Canadian queen of writing poems that dismantle our ideas of what poetry even is. It feels wrong to call her a poet, so genre bending and boundary defying is her work. I read her just to marvel at how her mind operates. One of my favorite poems (or poem-ish creation) by her is “Cassandra Float Can,” a so-called “lecture in three parts” about translation and its limits; about cuts and fissures and the breaking points of language, of materials, of reality.  It appears in her book Float, a collection of 22 chapbooks (to be read in any order) nestled together in a transparent plastic case. The pieces in Float took various forms before they were committed to the page, often in multimedia performances(like “Cassandra Float Can”), so it feels appropriate to appreciate them through a medium other than print.  When I came across a recording of “Cassandra Float Can” years ago, I was immediately entranced by Carson’s soft, ghostly voice. I wanted to sit with my legs folded and pay attention. I couldn’t help but be reeled in. I focused on what enthralled me (Carson imitating Cassandra’s cry of “OTOTOTOI POPOI DA!”) and smoothed over what could’ve caused a mental snag if encountered on a page (her aside about mathematics and Edmund Husserl). I could intuit feeling and experience frissons of delight from the sonic structure of the poem, even if some logical subtleties eluded me. Now when I read “Cassandra Float Can” in its chapbook form, I have a layered, multi-dimensional experience of the piece.

When I hear a poem read aloud, it’s as if I’m in the room with the poet, and we’re going through the lines together, experiencing them side by side. Sometimes I’ll be minding my own business, and I’ll hear Nied’s voice whisper in my ear “metallic leaps Jackson Pollock/silvery streams Jackson Pollock.” I bring this poem, and others, with me through my daily life. Perhaps you’d like to experience these moments of transcendence as well. Here are a few recorded poems I especially love: Terrance Hayes’s “Lighthead’s Guide to Addiction” and Suji Kwock Kim’s “Fugue.”Penn Sound is also a great resource—you could start with this trove of Adrienne Rich and then dig around until you find your very own Cassandra Float Can.

All of the books of poetry recommended in this series (including books that Lauren recommended) have been added to this shelf on where you can buy them and support your local indie bookseller.

Image is from the book Fair Women in Painting and Poetry