Sounds of Poetry

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Overview

The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works.

"Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. ...

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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

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Overview

The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works.

"Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. In this fascinating book, he explains how poets use the "technology" of poetry—its sounds—to create works of art that are "performed" in us when we read them aloud.

He devotes brief, informative chapters to accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank and free verse. He cites examples from the work of fifty different poets—from Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert to W. C. Williams, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C. K. Williams, Louise Glück, and Frank Bidart.

This ideal introductory volume belongs in the library of every poet and student of poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
September 1998

Poet laureate Robert Pinsky knows poetry is alive and well in America, but he also knows that for the inexperienced reader, it can be intimidating. And far too often, the language used to help us understand poetry makes it appear all the more alienating. In his new essential introductory guide to the genre, Pinsky seeks to simplify our approach to and experience of poetry in order to amplify our enjoyment and appreciation of it — through sound.

"Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

Writing plainly and specifically, for general readers as well as for poets, Pinsky explains in detail how the sounds of poetry embody the work of art that is "performed" in us when we read it aloud. As a poet, he is able to free poetry from a technical approach to reading, returning the elements of poetry to something akin to the experience of a poet writing it. In clear, informative chapters devoted to the sonic elements of poetry, Pinsky discusses essentials such as accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank verse and free verse. He illustrates these with examples form the work of some 50 poets, from Shakespeare, Milton, and Emily Dickinson to William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. An ideal introductory volume, The Sounds of Poetryalsobelongs in the library of every poet and every student of poetry.

From the Publisher
"A keenly idiosyncratic account of the place of poetry in our time . . . not only interesting but suspenseful to read." — James Longenbach, The Nation

 

"One of the marvelous things about this book is Pinsky's deep recognition that a poem is successful not because of the poet's ambition or sense of purpose but because of the effect it creates in the reader, and in many readers over time"—Graham Christian, Boston Phoenix

Booknews
American poet, translator, and critic explains in nontechnical terms how the sounds of poetry embody the work of art that is performed in readers when they read it aloud. He discusses accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, and blank verse and free verse and illustrates them with the work of famous poets of the English language.
Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Oregon
David Barber
...[A] short book that should go a long way toward reuniting poetry and the public. -- The Atlantic Monthly
Joshua Weiner
Pinsky's primer is like no other — clear, thorough, provocative, and alive with the wit and passionate engagement of a great teacher, The Sounds of Poetry is sure to remain the most inspiring and most serviceable book of its kind for a long time to come.
Tikkun
James Logenbach
Pinsky hears America singing...Deeply personal...beautifully perceptive...Pinsky has created a keenly idiosyncratic acccount of the place of poetry in our time.
The Nation
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374526177
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 412,014
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.66 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Pinsky is Poet Laureate of the United States. FSG published The Inferno of Dante in 1994 and The Figured Wheel in 1996. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University and lives in Newton Corner, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

ACCENT AND DURATION

What determines the stress or accent in English words and sentences? What precisely does it mean to say, for example, that we stress the first syllable in the word "rabbit" and the second syllable in the word "omit"? What exactly does the voice do to create that audible, distinct accent? (A term that for now I will use interchangeably with "stress.")

    at first. Just considering the question can, in itself, help one to hear more about the sounds of the words we speak.

    increased loudness or volume is not completely satisfactory, as a little experimentation will suggest. Consider what a speaker does to distinguish between, say, the first word and the last word of the following sentence:

   

Turning the volume down or up has some relation to what our voice does, but fails to explain the delicate but quite distinct difference that virtually all speakers can indicate and virtually all listeners can detect.

    English sound:

    which happens also to be a one-syllable word, is neither stressed nor unstressed, by itself. It is neither short nor long, by itself.

    syllables near it, when one says "bitter" or "reiterate" or "she had wit." It is conventionally unstressed when one says "italicize" or "rabbit" or "Pat had it."

    stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it. As a corollary, accent is a matter of degree. This knowledge is useful because if accent or stress is a matter of degree, we can hear interesting rhythms even in a line where the basic structure is the simple pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. For example:

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be.

Each of these two lines is made of four pairs of syllables. Each pair of syllables is arranged so that the second one has more accent than the first: "is" sticks out just a bit more than "It" in the very light first pair; and "grow" sticks out more than "not" in the rather heavy second pair; and "like" sticks out quite a lot more than "-ing"; and "tree" definitely sticks out more than "a." In the final pair of the line ("a tree"), the difference between the unstressed first syllable and the stressed second syllable is greater than in the earlier pairs. We could analyze the second line similarly, noting that the considerable pause early in the line also varies the rhythm.

    of four pairs, each pair ascending in accent from first syllable to second, the actual rhythm of the words is not singsong or repetitious, because so much varies. Unless you make the mistake of pronouncing the words in some special, chanting or "poetic" manner, you can hear both the pattern and the constant variation. The degree of accent varies and the degree of difference between the unstressed and stressed syllable also varies, from one pair to the next.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
Theory 7
I Accent and Duration 11
II Syntax and Line 25
III Technical Terms and Vocal Realities 51
IV Like and Unlike Sounds 79
V Blank Verse and Free Verse 97
Recommendations for Further Study 117
Notes 119
Index of Names and Terms 123
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Interviews & Essays

From a barnesandnoble.com e-nnouncement

A "how-to" book on poetry? If there is any living poet qualified to write one, it is poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Whether you are a poet or a poetry lover, his latest book, THE SOUNDS OF POETRY, is filled with straightforward, jargon-free instruction and advice to help you "hear more of what is going on in poems." Now, exclusively for barnesandnoble.com, Pinsky takes his "how-to" approach a step further—writing about how poets make it happen. Whether playing childhood word games, studying the sound of "cornpopper," or relishing the cadence of a train announcement, Pinsky shares his love of language, so listen up!

Language Listeners

by Robert Pinsky

"Do you write with a pen or pencil or computer or typewriter?"

One true answer to this old standard question is "all of the above"—for any writer, I think. Or, "any of the above." Whatever is at hand will do, and imprisoned writers have memorized long works, scratched them into surfaces, tapped them out in laborious code for others to preserve.

But the truth for a poet is none of the above, for the accurate answer is, "I write with my voice."

Our medium is breath, vibrating in the voice box and shaped by the warm moist surfaces inside the mouth, by the teeth and lips. Yeats is described as muttering to himself in his study, trying out the lines and phrases, and some of Wordsworth's neighbors took him for a madman, as he walked the countryside mumbling and exclaiming to himself as he composed. The literal or imagined breath is our instrument.

For that reason, the answer to another standby—"When did you write your first poem?"—shouldbe that one can't remember. At the age when some children are intuitively carrying a tune, or developing an athletic gift, or musing about numbers, the tiny poet is thinking about how "cushion" plus "pillow" might equal "pushion" or "push-in," which is what your head does to the object.

Or on a more physical level, thinking about the very grunt of the word, you might become fascinated by the two syllables of the word "popcorn": The first syllable is stressed by its higher pitch, but the second syllable lasts longer as you say it. "Corn" is longer, but "pop" gets more stress. Unless you reverse them in "cornpopper," so the longer one is also stressed.

Or thinking about a cadence: I've used the example, "Passengers going to Hoboken, change trains at Summit": The three differently paced triplets of "passengers" and "going to" and "Hoboken" preceding the slow similar sounds of "change trains," then that quick little bop-bop stinger of "Summit": If you have been bitten by the bug, you might think about that rhythm so hard, sitting there, you might forget to change for the right train. I think that there is a little bit of this strange obsession in all of us. Many people, for example, not only poets, have had the experience of suddenly hearing the sound of an ordinary word like "foot," when repeated, as unfamiliar and funny. Kids sometimes use that feeling to egg one another into laughing fits. (Just now, did imagining a chain of repeated "foots" suggest "fits"?)

I hope that everyone has at least a little of this fascination with the sounds of language. If not, it is bad news for poets, and as Yeats says in "Adam's Curse," "All of our stitching and unstitching has been naught."

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2010

    POETRY MISSING FROM EBOOKS

    While I like reading poetry such as this, many of us would like to see this book and others like it offered as ebooks. It would also be great to have more than Grin and Bear It and the bio features arrive each morning on my NOOK, why not add a new poem each morning. Also, I find it very difficult to find poetry even by poet laureates, such as Robert Pinsky. offered as ebooks. Please consider offering this book and other poetry books for sale as ebooks.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2001

    Dancing through a Poem with Robert Pinsky

    If you're curious about the music of poetry, you'll like this short book which moves along quickly, easily, and yet says a great deal. Pinsky moves observantly through poems he obviously loves without killing them. For me the real payoff came as I began to apply his explanations to some of my own poems and could see how they work. A book for poets to keep, use and savor.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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