Of Poetry, Sounding Good and Being Useful

I took a course called Technical Writing in grad school. The professor assigned a short manual that he had written himself as the required reading. He spent a lot of the time talking about the precision of language required to win government RFPs and publish effective user manuals. In the first week of the class, he said, “My course teaches every kind of useful writing. You will use what you learn in this course for the rest of your life. It is not about having a beautiful style, it’s about function and clarity. For example, how does one use a poem?”
I immediately wrote down his question. I underlined it in my notebook for emphasis. How does one use a poem?

Poetry began as a cultural mnemonic device. Without the written word, our ancestors needed a way to easily recall and recite significant historical events and important legends. Like sounding words, rhymes, and predictable cadences helped us pass our ideas from generation to generation.

Despite this, the technical writing professor never mentioned the usefulness of poetry after that first day. I left the class holding back all my answers to his rhetorical question. I had used poems to get through cold Monday mornings. I’d gifted them — outside mugs or inside birthday cards. I’d used poetry to woo, to protest, to heal, and to teach.

I understood what the professor had meant to say. There are some sentences that are functional first. They explain. They do the work. In novels, they carry the plot forward. They clarify action or establish the relationship of one object to another in the space of the world you’ve created. They are the forgettable sentences that pass through your mind and leave behind only the singular idea they carried.

Obviously, novels need a second kind of sentence to establish any emotional staying power or resonance in a reader’s mind. The kind of sentence that evokes a mood, not just because of what it means, but how it sounds. Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky breaks down the ways that writers of English couple syllables and juxtapose phrases to convey a deeper meaning in his short book, The Sounds of Poetry.

For anyone who struggles to recognize iambic pentameter, Pinsky’s guide will read like a nightmare initially. He dissects some well-known poems exposing exactly how they work. Choices in line break, repetition of vowel sounds, variance in meter are all accounted for and add up to which words will stand out to a reader’s ear and therefore carry the most weight in a reader’s mind.
Don’t panic. The advice of his short guide is not to break apart your best sentences in syllabic meter or apply the technical approach to assonance and consonance to the dialogue of each protagonist. Instead, he offers words of comfort to anyone daunted by the idea of looking too closely at every utterance you put on a page:

No writer would think this way — muttering to oneself about short and long, stressed and unstressed — any more than a jazz musician would think that a series of dotted eighths and sixteenth notes might make a nice contrast to the triplets of a preceding bar, or a boxer would ponder whether to fake a right cross to make room for the jab. The expert makes the moves without needing to think about them.

Pinksy’s advice is simply to listen. He contends every English speaker can hear the nuance of emphasis, meter, and rhyme far better than we can explain or measure it. I have begun muttering more to myself, reading aloud drafts to hear what’s working, what’s useful, and what sounds good. I like to think of it as on more way I’ve made practical use of a poem.

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