Guest Post, Cynthia Hogue: Some Notes on Sound in Poetry

Follow the music into sense.

Norman Dubie

 I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry.[1] The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.

Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic.[2] A poet sees through words and thinks in song.  To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat.[3] What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?

I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.

I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.

A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.

[1] See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder;

[2] On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.

[3] Tess Gallagher, “Comeback.” Dear Ghosts: Poem (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2006), 136.


Cynthia Hogue

5 thoughts on “Guest Post, Cynthia Hogue: Some Notes on Sound in Poetry

  • February 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    When one considers poetry it is usually the visual images that poetry gives; however poetry often contains a lyrical quality to it. It’s an interesting concept to consider ” to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking,” This perspective in mind will make the reading of poetry more insightful.

  • February 5, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    First, I love the use of “sonorous,” a word I feel I don’t hear often enough. Secondly, it is true that sometimes when I write a song of sorts pops into my head, original music from instruments playing as I continue to write. I suppose it also ties into the age-old writer’s evidence about reading your work aloud when you revise it.

  • February 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    I heard Poet Cynthia Hogue give the keynote address, “Thinking in Song, Seeing Through Words,” at the Rising Stars, Desert Nights writing conference—February 25, of 2012. I can’t remember if she had discussed Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem that early morning, but her message of how a poet “thinks” through music continues to resonate within me. I just loved Hogue’s speculation: “Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment.” Crafting music between the lines is made out to sound like a bunch of fun, not to mention hard—intelligent—work. Professor Sarah Grieve, here at Arizona State University, has introduced me to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Poetry. This post-modernistic verse relies entirely on strung sounds. ‘Sound-thinking’ sounds better to me. And I bet Gallagher discovered her use of “gloam” intuitively in her first draft; perhaps, her subconscious was being the wisest at the beginning stage of her poetic process. And perhaps poets should hold more trust in their initial sounds, which is paradoxical to what I’ve heard: that much better thoughts and concepts arrive later in the drafting process. I truly enjoyed Hogue’s blog, and, I’ll keep her teachings in mind.

  • February 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I took me quite some time to find anyone that “got it” when I insisted that, for me, poetry first had to be right aurally before it could be revised and polished. Cynthia Hogue was one of the first to understand where I was coming from.

    Poetry is indeed about the imagery we elicit with carefully chosen vocabulary. But it is in the aural qualities, the rhythm, the sounds, the pacing, that inform our understanding of the words we read.

    I think this might be why it took me forever to let go of writing in antiquated language. There is still something to be said for the musicality of older English. When used sparingly, such as including “gloam” in the poem discussed, the word adds both its musical quality and enhances the understanding of the entire piece.

  • February 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Cynthia Hogue was my second poetry professor at Arizona State University, the first being the Superstition Review’s own Patricia Murphy! Both of these women gave me wonderful tips and information on how to further my own poetry. Cynthia Hogue guided me to the understanding that my poetry takes on a musical tone. I was so happy to see that she had a guest post here on the blog because I had fortunately taken her intermediate poetry class and loved every minute of it. I had never heard the term “gloam”, and looked it up after reading this blog post and can see how it is very prevalent in poetry as well as all writing in general.

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