Poetry and the Mouth


Poetry and the Mouth:
from the blog of the poet, Annie Finch

Hart Crane by candlelight, Longfellow on a cake, and the scoop on the amazing Patricia Smith

Sitting on the back porch on a very foggy Maine summer night, reading Hart Crane by flickering candlelight to Kazim Ali and his partner, I share with them “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge,” “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” and “Voyages: III”(lines my husband, who shares my love of Crane, had typed out and hung in the kitchen). What does “share “ mean in this situation? What do I mean when I say, “ I’ve got to share those poems with you!” and run to get the book, a couple of different editions of it, from the poetry bookshelves lining the dining room? What does it mean?

In this expectant, still exclaim receive

The secret oar and petals of all love. . .

As I hold the candle dangerously close to the pages of Crane, sharing can mean nothing else but reading aloud.

So sharing means, “Listen!” It means “Wrap your ears around this!” It means, “let me wrap my mouth around this so you can wrap your ears around it too!” It means, “let me hold these handed-down words in the caverns of my body and infuse them with my uniquely and sometimes painfully seasoned take on being human, then suspend them in the universe of my mouth long enough so you will feel exactly how much and what kind of pleasure they give me as I release them towards your ear to join with your own experience of being human.”

When I have the feeling, “oh, wow, I’ve got to share that poem with you,“—though once in a while it feels right to lay the book under someone’s nose—with my true favorite poems, the sharing is in part an excuse to get that poem in my own mouth and ear again. Thus has it been everywhere on this planet, since centuries before books were printed or poems even written down . . .

Let me bring you to another poetry-centered evening in Maine. A brightly lit room attached to the Longfellow House. A couple of hundred people, a huge cake. On the cake, curled in yellow frosting, lines and phrases from Longfellow’s poems: “Listen my children and you shall hear… the patter of little feet….ships that pass in the night….footsteps on the sands of time… “ It is Longfellow’s 200th birthday party, and at this reading, the people excited about hearing some of the birthday boy’s poems read are not all poets themselves but people from all over the Portland community: businesspeople, teachers, chemists, retirees.

Maine poet laureate Betsy Sholl and I have each been asked to read one of Longfellow’s poems to the crowd as part of the celebration. Betsy, skilled in free verse but not used to meter, opens by saying she is nervous that her reading will sound singsong. I am nervous for a different reason. I have decided to read “My Lost Youth,” because it mentions Portland and I am curious what it will be like to read a poem with so many recurrences of such a long, beautiful refrain (this particular refrain, by the way, furnished Robert Frost with the title for his first book). But I’m scared the refrain will end up sounding a bit boring by the end of the poem; after all, how many times can a poet repeat the same two lines? “Don’t let me down, Henry,” I think as I plunge in.

And he doesn’t. The poem is amazing. As I thread my way through the stanzas, I discover that the refrain is different every single time it occurs—each one calling for a slightly different emotional tone and emphasis, because of the way Longfellow has set up the preceding stanza. By the end of it, I and more than one of the people in the audience are literally in tears. Over a hundred years after the death of the voice that first recited “My Lost Youth,” it is all still right there. Every intended intonation is preserved in meter as in amber, available to be unlocked with sureness and faith by my own voice.

What a magnificent technology, I tell my students over and over, meter is. A technology for remembering histories, stories, epic tales, as we all know—but also a technology for remembering the most particular and subtle shadows of human feeling, emotion held and expressed in our bodies without words, and communicating these tones of feeling accurately to other humans across centuries and cultures.

This is the power which, I suspect, has brought me the chance to work with Patricia Smith, my current Stonecoast MFA student, AKA “MFA Girl,” as she dubs herself in her blog on the Poetry Foundation website. Patricia is a multiple-time National Poetry Slam winner and a National Poetry Series winner. She is a courageous and committed poet who has taken the step of enrolling in an MFA program perhaps originally for pragmatic reasons but ultimately because of her need to know as much as possible, as deeply as possible, as thoroughly as possible, about her art. When she puts on that MFA Girl cape and walks into my workshop, I know I am going to be teaching for all I’m worth, and learning as well.

During our blank verse workshop (which encompasses not only iambic pentameter but several kinds of unrhymed meter), after I asked my students to copy the metrical patterns and variations of 12 lines of a Frost poem, syllable by syllable, Patricia showed up the next morning with a long blank verse narrative about a child with a toy gun that turns out to be real—a narrative as long as, and line for line metrically matched with, Frost’s “Mending Wall” (the couple of places where model and original disconnect are places where the narrative of Patricia’s poem requires, thematically, that they disconnect). When we all recovered our breath from the shock and asked her what she wanted to call this opus, she replied, “ Two Eighteen A.M.,” as that was the time she finished it—after which I wouldn’t be surprised if she moved on to finishing her blog for the Poetry Foundation.

Another time, I brought in a sample of a dipodic meter with medial caesura , the same poem with which prosodic expert Tom Cable had stumped half of the expert poets and prosodists gathered from all over the country to the “Think Tank” on “New and Unusual Meters” at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Not only did Patricia—and most of the students, I’m very proud to say—“get” the sound of this meter almost immediately—but Patricia was able to come up with several metrically perfect lines of it on the spot.

With all her great success in publications and awards, this poet does not need to learn all this for any career reason; and since she has already learned to write a pretty good passage of meter, a rare enough accomplishment nowadays, neither does she need to know the terminology, the subtleties and variations, the rules for substitution, and everything else she wants to learn so that she can talk about meter with ease and familiarity. Yet here she is. Eager and determined to know all of it, and then to take it from there.

Fellow fanatics, in whatever our chosen field for passion happens to be, are always encouraging to know. And amazing people are always encouraging. But while I have been enjoying this chance to enthuse about Patricia, that’s not all I’m up to. Patricia’s passion and readiness for learning everything she can about form encourage me in a wider sense because they indicate two other things:

1. Slam can be a great training ground for the metrical ear. Which means that there are plenty of young poets out there who, though they have been writing and performing only free verse, have the background it takes to become fluent in meter. Since I find meter one of the most exquisitely worthwhile secrets ever begging to be shared, that’s encouraging to me.

2. Skill in meter promises something that is precious to discerning contemporary poets, something that can’t be achieved in any other way: the ability to preserve exactly the intonations of words and lines, to control how your readers will hear them in their minds, even without your recorded or actual voice in their ear. I imagine that this is what it’s worth staying up till 2:18 AM for, worth temporarily replacing the vestments of celebrity with an MFA girl cloak for, worth putting up with all kinds of student frustrations for. I know, since I put up with plenty of frustrations for the sake of it myself. I don’t regret a minute of it, and I imagine that neither will Patricia.


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