The Sounds of Words

Yeats and Maude Gonne by Anne Marie O’Driscoll

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,

And dream about the great and their pride;

They have spoken against you everywhere,

But weigh this song with the great and their pride;

I made it out of a mouthful of air,

Their children’s children shall say they have lied.

                 WB Yeats “He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”

A by-product of breathing, that mouthful of air, exhalation tracking up through the trachea, plucking the vocal c[h]ords: vowels, consonants, words, words, words.  Say outloud the title of this post  – the sounds of words.  Dissonant, sharp, as unlovely as the scraping of a rake on gravel, echoing  Juliet’s lament as Romeo vacates their marriage bed:

It is the lark that sings so out of tune, 
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Romeo and Juliet by Todd Peterson

Perhaps even more discordant is Gerard Manly Hopkins postlapsarian description of industrialization:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

   Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Industrial wasteland matte by Ryan Morgan

Who sez that poetry’s supposed to sound pretty?  

Not Alexander Pope:

But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,

The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar

Nor that barbaric yawper Walt Whitman:

Nor him in the poor house tubercled by rum and the bad disorder.

Nor Ol’ Ez in St. Elizabeth’s ranting:

the drift of lice, teething,

and above it the mouthing of orators,

    the arse-belching of preachers.

Inferno, Canto 8 by Giovanni Stradano

Thanks to its Anglo-Saxon roots, English is well-suited to screech.  However, thanks to its French invaders, our language can also coo.  And don’t forget the ess-cee (sc) words of the Vikings with their skalds singing of skulls and skies and scales.  

English-speaking poets possess quite a synthesizer through which to sample sounds, orchestrating Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French symphonically (Milton) or piping a simple Saxon tune in tetrameter (Anonymous).

Given global warmification/climatic alternation, the following worry may seem as trivial as the date of Alfred Tennyson’s death, but I wonder, given our beeping visual small screen secondhand exposure to actual sights and sounds, if off-the-cuff eloquence might become as rare as first edition Kafkas.  

In my youth, among my compatriots, having a way with words held sway.  I think of Jake the Snake Williams politely stringing together sentences to a Jehovah’s Witness in Richland Mall, and the fellow smiling, nodding his head, and saying, “Brother, you got you an excellent rap.”  Or Furman Langley lamenting in a Lowcountry gumbo of gullah-echo the pain he be suffering from the “Hurry Curry Casserole Blues.” 

The “like-like” syncopatations of youthful inarticulation and the ubiquitous interrogative lilt of a nation of valley girls’ declarative sentences gives me pause?

I guess it all boils down to a matter of culture.

Bewildered, bewildering primate.  Absinthe.  Circumcision.  Couplets.

Grudges., beliefs.  The war of my childhood, Europe tearing at itself.

Scarification.  Conceptual art.  Classic celebrated scholarly papers

On the Trobriand Islanders, more fiction or poetry than science.

Absorbed or transmitted always invisibly in the air

From a digital Cloud.  Visible and invisible in the funny papers . . . 

from “Culture” by Robert Pinsky

2 thoughts on “The Sounds of Words

  1. I still find it hilarious when someone uses a questioning tone when they are making a declarative statement:) It seems to frustrate the other person and they end up making a stupid comment. Part of them notices the declaration and part of them notices the tone. Their ears perk up for the question, but their mind scans the statement to see if they can elaborate on it.

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