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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by…
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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

by Robert Pinsky

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Pinsky’s book is a seemingly simple, five-chapter (“Accent and Duration,” “Syntax and Line,” “Technical Terms and Vocal Realities,” “Like and Unlike Sounds,” and “Blank Verse and Free Verse”) guide “to help the reader hear more of what is going on in poems, and by hearing more to gain in enjoyment and understanding” (3). He says he will avoid accent marks (6) and indeed uses no symbols for stressed or unstressed syllables, caesuras, or divisions between feet. The unspoken rule is that he will not interpret lines when he quotes them, but merely point out the features of sound.
Pinsky’s idea is that we already know how subtle accents and sound changes convey meaning in ordinary discourse. And he argues that there are no rules outside of practice; therefore the best guides to poetry are the poems: Yeats for traditional metrics, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens for “so-called free verse,” Emily Dickinson for short lines, Hardy for the use of ballad meter. “No instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem” (7).
For Pinsky, the sounds of poetry are at once more complex and more simple than the “rules” of prosody would suggest. “There are no rules” (7) he begins. “Accent is relative . . . sometimes reinforced by quantity [duration] and sometimes not” and the reader is capable of hearing how a poet uses accent: “it is not a matter of some mysterious gift, but of habits, vocabulary and a kind of attention” (17). Syntax plays against line in the same way that actual stress patterns play against regular metrical pattern expectations. “I think one can learn a lot by typing a poem up as a block, trying to arrange it in lines that you think bring out the rhythms in the most effective way possible” (49).
A special pleasure is Pinsky’s use of examples; some recur, such as Frost’s “To Earthward” and Stevens’s “The Snow Man.”
Terminology, Pinsky thinks, should try to describe meter and not rhythm—the sound of an actual line, which is unique.
Pinsky makes similar points about like sounds: aside from repetition—the ultimate in like sounds—rhyme and other sound likenesses are matters of both unlikeness and likeness. “Rhyme . . . is a matter of degree, and not necessarily an either/or toggle” (81). One of his examples is Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” which has so many rhymes and sound likenesses that read aloud, it belies its blank verse form.
In the last chapter Pinsky goes through examples of three and two-foot lines that come together as pentameters (Frost’s “To Earthward” again) and the opposite situation in order to show a relation between pentameter and free verse. He quotes Pound: “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave” (98). But “the cadences and patterns of like sound persist” in free verse. He ends by pointing at poetry’s beginnings: “Rhyme and emphatic rhythms help us to memorize. Verse in this way is a technology for memory, using the sounds of language, created by a human body, as writing uses marks” (115). ( )
  michaelm42071 | Sep 6, 2009 |
Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1998. I enjoyed this book. It taught me a ton about the technical aspect of poetry. This is material that, I believe, used to be a part of English curricula across the nation---no more. Nobody teaches the details of rhythm, meter, and rhyme any more. It's supposedly too stifling.
1 vote BrianDewey | Jul 30, 2007 |
A basic text for understanding poetic form and diction. This volume shows that poets can write clearly on occassion. Deceptively clear and straightforward, but decidedly precise as well. ( )
  A_musing | Jun 1, 2007 |
too fluffy, too elementary even for a first contact with prosody. ( )
  ktai | Aug 10, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374526176, Paperback)

While it's hardly the most traveled of literary destinations, poetry has suffered from no shortage of guidebooks. Still, these poetic baedekers tend to get bogged down in terminology and historical hairsplitting, while the actual music gets lost in the shuffle. We should be thankful, then, for Robert Pinsky's brief, wonderfully readable volume, in which he zooms in on verse as acoustic artifact: "When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, the artist's medium is my breath. The reader's breath and hearing embody the poet's words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual."

Not that Poet Laureate Pinsky gets vague or touchy-feely on us. Poetry, like God, is in the details, and the author starts with the building blocks, the amino acids, of verse: accent and duration. Even the most jaded of readers will benefit from his syllable-by-syllable examination of Thomas Campion's "Now Winter Nights Enlarge" and Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." Moving on through discussions of syntax and line, meter and rhyme (or lack thereof), Pinsky enlists both the usual suspects (Shakespeare, Frost, Hardy, Eliot, Bishop) and some less customary ones (Gilbert & Sullivan, Louise Gluck, and the splendid James McMichael) to make his points. These poems are, in some sense, teaching tools for the author. Yet even his on-the-fly commentary causes us to see them in a new light. Here he is, for example, on the near-monotonous minimalism of W.C. Williams's "To a Poor Old Woman": "The poem dramatizes the taking in of a supposedly ordinary experience, and the playful, almost hectoring repetitions are like an effective sermon in praise of simplicity." The Sounds of Poetry is no less effective a sermon. It leaves your ear (and your heart) attuned to the pleasurable play of poetic language and persuades you that hearing is, indeed, believing. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:45 -0400)

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