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Caution: Poetry at Work

October: How sound works

October 27

In a Certain LightHearing this poem at a reading, our friend, the exquisite soprano Dr. Carolyn Finley, said the poem really "spoke to her," and said she would gladly sing it if I set it to music for her. Though I had set other poets' work for choir or soloist, and had written songs for guitar as a young person (mostly with horrible, predictable lyrics), I had never tried to set a poem of my own. This poem had provided me with an avenue for grief at the death of my grandmother, and it was a poignant challenge to shift from spoken to sung word.

In a certain light

In a certain light if I stretch just right
my ribs crest again, thin cage from Adam
drawn right around my softened heart
cushioned now with the dough of years

Almond crisps, angel cookies
ginger snaps, one by one hugged my tongue
my waist, my hips, thighs, just as I would hug
my grandma as she baked and let me taste

Swelling in the heat they'd soon cool to comfort.
I remember my first swells and worries of new
contours, the first "No" to diet-banished sweets.
My grandma, terse, says, "If God wants you fat,

you'll be fat," impatience vying with love.
There's no fighting with God, the cook's
theology maintains, and there she must be right.
In her high heels and hats her round form was beauty

She danced us all off the floor at the legion hall,
polka, schottische; she danced the way she cooked
and it went on rising, rising. In the soft, chewy center
I always knew she'd love me, plump or thin, as I loved

all the pillowed laughter and fragrance
of her zest, wooden spoon heaped with yeast
and doughnuts frying in the crisp air
After her stroke, her mind at rest elsewhere

Her heart would not stop hugging life.
Her body thinned and sank beneath her ribs
as she slowly passed away. It is my waist now
that is comfort, my chest a warm pillow.

If I stretch just right I feel her round my heart.

--Karen Lynn Erickson
Credit: From Dwellings. Copyright© 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,
In a Certain Light.mp3


Invitation for your writing:
The French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard advised poets to read their verses aloud, and even better, to sing them out, to test their quality and power. Singers learn to project their sound by using the resonant cavities of mouth and sinuses, and by making the most efficient use of their breath. First read this poem silently, then read a stanza aloud. Read another stanza, but sing it out. What kind of melody are you creating as you read out the lines? Finally, listen to the recording by Dr. Finley and Dr. Turley (mp3 file) from their album, In a Certain Light: Mostly Minnesota Composers, produced with colleague Dr. Kent, and used by permission (available soon on Digital [email protected]/SJU). What do you hear in the poem when a team of professional musicians interpret the text in a musical setting created by the poet? Now choose one of your own poems or write a poem about an experience filled with strong emotion (grief, joy, fear...); read your poem silently, then aloud, then by projecting in a singing tone. Does the act of "voicing" give new insight into your poem and into your experience?

October 20

Poetry helps us hear the music of language. It also helps us hear the eloquence of silence, endangered in our noisy lives and world. The white spaces within and around a poem's words are filled with meaning and emotion. William Stafford's wonderful poem "Sayings of the Blind" alerts us to all we miss because sight dominates the perception of the world for most of us. The poem includes such wit and wisdom as this: "Edison didn't invent much" and "What do they mean when they say night is gloomy?" ( Inspired by Stafford, I tried to imagine what a silent world is like and what sensual wonders I'm missing by depending so much on my ears.

Sayings of the Deaf
(after William Stafford's "Sayings of the Blind")Sayings of the Deaf

Silence has big soft hands that say,
"I want to be your friend."

Even in winter the earth vibrates.
My feet feel the early seeds
Stretching and yawning.

People's mouths move constantly
But their hands
Are dumb as dodos
Long dead.

Pockets are prisons for poetry.

Even in the heaviest gloves
With one hand behind my back
I can say
I love you.

Sometimes the flag says hello.
Sometimes it says goodbye.
Sometimes it's too sad to speak.

Why do hearing folk love mimes
But want to fix me?

Silent jokes are the funniest.

There are two kinds of words:
The splintery kind
Black and spare as trees in winter
And the voluptuous ones
Shaped by warm-blooded hands
And bodies
Swaying in the wind.

--Mara Faulkner, OSB


Invitation for your writing:
Make lists of words that appeal to each of the five (or maybe six) senses. Start at the top of the page and don't stop until you get to the bottom. They can be words you love, words that describe things or people you love, or words/things/people that are distasteful or ugly. Then start anywhere, grabbing words from your lists as you go along. Let the words take you someplace unexpected. You might want to concentrate on a sense that you usually neglect.

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