The Finish Line: Minding More Gaps
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Or: Conversations with Poetry
When we talk we we usually do so without stopping without clearly structured sentences that and and breaks and hm and repetitions and and ums and so on, you know just like in fact just just like this. We keep our rhythms still, the ups and downs of our mother tongues and local dialects that are often so hard to learn for speakers of other languages and dialects – and often impossible to ‘unlearn’ when we, in turn, try our hand at other tongues. Spoken speech often follows sound patterns rather than sentence logic. In dialogue, there are auditory signals that tell us, for example, that the person we are speaking to is not yet done – e.g. by repeating themselves or inserting ums and hms –, that they want us to join in on the conversation (or their opinion) – e.g. via raising the voice and marking a (rhetorical) question –, or that they are indeed finished – lowering the voice, making a long pause – and that it is now our turn to speak. Each everyday utterance has an audible finishing point: another voice replacing the first, silence, the lowering of the voice. These finishing points are what I want to think about today – not as they mark everyday speech, though, but with an eye to the important role they play in literature, specifically poetry – word music.
Poetry is often defined by its sound features: we categorise a text as a poem precisely because it rhymes, alliterates, follows a certain rhythm, a metre. It’s an oral form of word art, an oral form that we’ve mostly exiled to the page.
But not quite.
One of the features that is still there – despite (modern) poetry being (sometimes) intended and/or received as silent – that defines what poetry is, is space:
A poem is a text with form.
An end-stopped idea.
We recognise poetry visually, because it keeps its own finishing points. In performance, we hear the lines as they are often (re)realised in pauses, pauses that may serve – as they do in conversation – as points of entrance:
If you think of the dark as a black park and the moon as a bounced ball, then there’s nothing to be frightened of at all. (Except for aliens…)
This 2009 poem by Carol Ann Duffy illustrates the point. Imagine the sound of the poem, speak the poem! Each line ending, each pause, allows for a moment of interruption, of reflection, permitting the reader to almost take part in the conversation if they would. Maybe such a conversation with the poem could run somewhat like this (ignoring for the moment that the ending can be read humorously as well, keeping with the Halloween spirit today):
“If you think of the dark”
Hm. Yes, I can see it: “the dark,” the big “dark,” the absolute “dark,” the “threatening “dark.” I can see it now, feel it now.
“as a black park”
the park, dark but familiar, the big chestnut trees, the pond, the benches, the sweet smell of rotting leaves, the small sounds of moving water – there's more “park” than “dark” now: the scene in my head filled with lines and shapes and sounds and sighs
“and the moon as a bounced ball”
the dark retreats, the moon lights the well-known scenery before me, round and full and soft, a bounced ball, a toy
“then there’s nothing to be frightened of”
has the “dark” truly lost its power? Can I see it still? Feel it still? Have I imagined it away? But is there something missing – are you finished?
so it's gone now? Great. Or: is it?
why aren't you
are you done now? I remember
(Except for aliens…)
uh, no – sorry. WHAT?!
The poem becomes alive in its pauses: they leave room for engagement, (re)negotiation, individualisation, memory, enactment, understanding, immersion, connection, imagination. In this sense, we can think of poetry as a conversational art form at heart, allowing its audiences to almost directly enter into the conversation at the end of each line, leaving us to fill the gaps – gaps that are plenty and meaningful.
Duffy, Carol Ann. “The Dark.” 2009. The Scottish Poetry Library, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/dark/. Accessed 31 October 2020.