An Ear for Poetry - The question occurred to me early in my...

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The question occurred to me early in my literary studies: how could I, Rachel, have any sort of ear for poetry? I was deaf. Stumbling through the syllabic feet of poetic meter felt like tripping and falling down the stairs. I loved the lyrical artistry of poets such as John Donne , William Wordsworth , and Elizabeth Bishop . But would I ever find poetry fully accessible? Listen for it : with those words, a good half-dozen high school English teachers and, later, college professors explained how I should approach meter. They described stressed and unstressed syllables and metrical patterns based on auditory quality. “Do you hear that? Do you hear the rhythm of the line?” I did not. How could I? Sometimes someone would help me clap out a poem’s scansion with my hands, thereby channeling the flow of language to my body. Nonetheless, the primary emphasis in our conversations always fell on sound, something I could teach myself to discuss, in the same way one discusses abstract or elusive concepts, such as atomic orbitals, but never completely grasp. I compared this focus in English-language poetry with my experience in Latin class studying Virgil , where I learned to scan poems by memorizing the predominant Latin rules for long or short vowels rather than listening for where the stress in a word fell. There, logic (and not only my “ear,” or lack thereof) prevailed, and I soon felt as though I burrowed deep into Virgil’s metrical patterns with aplomb. In contrast, I approached writing poems for college creative writing classes with paralyzing uncertainty. Assignments that required a particular meter or rhyme scheme felt impossible. Iambic pentameter , dactylic hexameter, trochees and spondees : I could count, I could feel, but I feared that I was shut out of the poems—all because of this emphasis on their intangible sound .
Before too long, I turned to writing prose instead, in which I felt as though my words found the space to twirl and expand. I still remained drawn to some poets, such as Emily Dickinson , who seemed explicitly to invite readers who could seek out “internal difference— / Where the Meanings are.” In April 1862, Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “You ask of my companions, Hills, sir, and the Sundown. . . . They are better than Beings because they know—but do not tell.” For Dickinson, the fact that these “companions” do not speak audibly points to a different realm of sensory significance, at once more spontaneous and more ineffable than the organized patterns of speech and music. Clearly, poetry surpasses the auditory in many other ways, from its visual spaces on the page to the aesthetic qualities of a brilliant image and the visceral thrust of language striking readers at the core. But I have always thought that I put poetry

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