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The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

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The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing." As The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing." As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. In this fascinating book, he explains how poets use the "technology" of poetry--its sounds--to create works of art that are "performed" in us when we read them aloud. He devotes brief, informative chapters to accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank and free verse. He cites examples from the work of fifty different poets--from Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert to W. C. Williams, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C. K. Williams, Louise Glück, and Frank Bidart. This ideal introductory volume belongs in the library of every poet and student of poetry.


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The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing." As The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing." As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. In this fascinating book, he explains how poets use the "technology" of poetry--its sounds--to create works of art that are "performed" in us when we read them aloud. He devotes brief, informative chapters to accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank and free verse. He cites examples from the work of fifty different poets--from Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert to W. C. Williams, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C. K. Williams, Louise Glück, and Frank Bidart. This ideal introductory volume belongs in the library of every poet and student of poetry.

30 review for The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

  1. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "In the particular physical presence of memorable language we can find a reminder of our ability to know and retain knowledge itself: the 'brightness wherein all things come to see.'" - Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry "Nor is there a singing school, but studying Monuments of its own magnificence." - William Butler Yeats Review as a bad poem: Need to | review |using | iambs | and feet yet my | poet|ic skill's | off by | a beat. I hear | it, draw | near it, | and love | it, but still -- like | music | "In the particular physical presence of memorable language we can find a reminder of our ability to know and retain knowledge itself: the 'brightness wherein all things come to see.'" - Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry "Nor is there a singing school, but studying Monuments of its own magnificence." - William Butler Yeats Review as a bad poem: Need to | review |using | iambs | and feet yet my | poet|ic skill's | off by | a beat. I hear | it, draw | near it, | and love | it, but still -- like | music | -- I miss | something | quite big. Pinsky | gives form, | draws maps, | easy | short cuts guiding | ladders | down holes | I oft | en dig.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Would make a great college poetry 101 text book. My only complaint is that, for all its simple revelatory strength, Pinsky eschews the technical just a little too much. His section on "like and unlike sounds" would have been a little clearer if he just allowed himself to use terms like alliteration, assonance, consonance. In the interest of avoiding technical terms, he just keeps talking about how words "rhyme a different way". That said, he does take a lot of the mystery out of ideas like accen Would make a great college poetry 101 text book. My only complaint is that, for all its simple revelatory strength, Pinsky eschews the technical just a little too much. His section on "like and unlike sounds" would have been a little clearer if he just allowed himself to use terms like alliteration, assonance, consonance. In the interest of avoiding technical terms, he just keeps talking about how words "rhyme a different way". That said, he does take a lot of the mystery out of ideas like accent, duration and meter. A great book for a young poet, and also for your mom who likes to read, but "just doesn't get poetry". Simple, precise and empowering.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Eliza

    7/20/2012: I was bowled over by this little book. I mean, how much more is there to say about the sounds of poetry? Haven't we all learned (at least the English nerds among us) the meaning and importance of iamb, caesura, enjambment? Ah, but there turns out to be so much more--convention and vocabulary can so easily obscure and deaden what we are actually searching for in poetry. Pinsky's love of poetry and desire to convey that love is at the heart of what makes this guide so wonderful. TSOP is 7/20/2012: I was bowled over by this little book. I mean, how much more is there to say about the sounds of poetry? Haven't we all learned (at least the English nerds among us) the meaning and importance of iamb, caesura, enjambment? Ah, but there turns out to be so much more--convention and vocabulary can so easily obscure and deaden what we are actually searching for in poetry. Pinsky's love of poetry and desire to convey that love is at the heart of what makes this guide so wonderful. TSOP is elegant yet intimate, acknowledging poetic conventions yet moving way beyond them. The author explains in crystal clear and precise language how to listen to poetry, how to hear the amazing nuances of the English language and through them the incredible beauty of some of his favorite poems. Starting with syllables and words, moving to groups of words in a line, then to rhyme and form, Pinsky carefully explains how to hear poetry, how to practice appreciating it for its particular value. TSOP wants to help readers appreciate poetry without all the baggage that often makes people fear and misunderstand it. But it is still a "guide". So how does he escape this inherent contradiction? First, he writes with a wonderful tone of reluctance, not wanting to provide a reader with yet more rules, more terminology to obscure the actual work. He includes technical terms, but often in parentheses, as a kind of referral to that other world of convention, not as central to his argument. And he ends with "Recommendations for Further Study"--aha! you say…more advice, more instruction! But no. His "advice for further study is to identify a poem one loves, to read it aloud, perhaps to write it longhand or type it out, and to get at least some of it by heart. . .For an art is best understood through careful attention to great examples." Hm. Guess I'd better get reading.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

    “…the stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it.” (Pinsky 12) This principle, which I first read about in Timothy Steele’s works, has really unlocked the poetic world for me. I learned / reinforced several other ideas in this short, straight forwards guide to the landscape of poetic form. 1) Stress does not equal Rhythm. Meter concerns itself with stress or accent, rhythm more with d “…the stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it.” (Pinsky 12) This principle, which I first read about in Timothy Steele’s works, has really unlocked the poetic world for me. I learned / reinforced several other ideas in this short, straight forwards guide to the landscape of poetic form. 1) Stress does not equal Rhythm. Meter concerns itself with stress or accent, rhythm more with duration or the length of each syllable, or the speed with which we say it. Rhythm can align with meter, or it can contrast with it: by default their relationship ebbs and flows. 2) A poetic line need not correspond with a grammatical unit, such as a phrase or sentence. 3) In addition to Rhyme, found in the spectrum between like and unlike sounds, there is another axis: That of roots. Contrasting a Germanic root and a Latin root produces a more subtle, but still noticeable effect. 4) Dividing pentameters among speakers, ala Shakespeare.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This took me forever to get through, snatching a couple pages of it here and there, but I have to say, I really, really liked this. I'm using it for my 387 class next semester as a replacement for An Introduction to English Poetry, which is great, but doesn't have the ease with which Pinsky lays out the basics for meter and sound in poetry. He relates everything back to how an attentiveness to aspects of form give you the essential tools for being a responsible reader.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Diann Blakely

    Pinsky has been a strenuous and long-standing public advocate for the art, our country's sole three-time Poet Laureate. He’s also served the art as a translator, most recently of Dante’s INFERNO. While Pinsky doesn’t mention this work here, THE SOUNDS OF POETRY implicitly results from his immersion in a language largely unknown to him, and it ultimately addresses those readers for whom poetry yields meaning as readily as the Rosetta Stone. T.S. Eliot, another transmuter of Dante, explains the ma Pinsky has been a strenuous and long-standing public advocate for the art, our country's sole three-time Poet Laureate. He’s also served the art as a translator, most recently of Dante’s INFERNO. While Pinsky doesn’t mention this work here, THE SOUNDS OF POETRY implicitly results from his immersion in a language largely unknown to him, and it ultimately addresses those readers for whom poetry yields meaning as readily as the Rosetta Stone. T.S. Eliot, another transmuter of Dante, explains the matter best: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” That is, it can communicate as tone, inflection, raw sound, and by extension meaning, as spending a few minutes with pre-verbal children can attest. In other words, only when we insist on intellect as the sole means of comprehension do we become incapable of hearing what poems have to tell us. Training the left brain to work with what the right brain absorbs intuitively is as helpful for readers as it is essential for aspiring poets, and this is each author’s ultimate task. Pinsky’s book is particularly clear, presenting us with chapters that are as concise and unintimidating as they are useful. For example, he reassures us that no writer in the process of creation mutters “about short and long, stressed and unstressed” syllables any more than “a boxer would ponder whether to fake a right cross to make more room for the jab.” A former pugilist as well as an enormously gifted poet, Pinsky can state with unusual authority that “the expert makes the moves without needing to think about them. But the more we notice and study, the more we can get from actual performance. And analysis of a fluid performance into its parts can lead to understanding, and perhaps eventually to the expert’s level of insight and the expert’s kind of joy.”

  7. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    Spare, articulate, approachable, yet rich, this is an excellent survey of poetry as sounded, from stress and accent to rhyme and assonance/consonance, with particular attention to line/syntax having implications in the subtleties of blank and free verse.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Georgia

    A must read if you are studying poetry

  9. 5 out of 5

    Pia

    Pinsky makes some great points about appreciating the sounds of poems. This book is really aimed at novice readers of poetry, not at writers. At times he oversimplifies meter; start with iambs and end with iambic pentameter, everything else is just a variation or else completely unimportant. Also, it's apparently a good idea to rewrite other people's poems to show lines that could be iambic pentameter if only... No book on poetic sound or form will ever be a truly enjoyable read, but Pinsky reall Pinsky makes some great points about appreciating the sounds of poems. This book is really aimed at novice readers of poetry, not at writers. At times he oversimplifies meter; start with iambs and end with iambic pentameter, everything else is just a variation or else completely unimportant. Also, it's apparently a good idea to rewrite other people's poems to show lines that could be iambic pentameter if only... No book on poetic sound or form will ever be a truly enjoyable read, but Pinsky really jumps around. Very early on he states that when he quotes a poem he won't include the name of the author so as not to distract from the words, but then he immediately abandons that plan as if the author of each poem is a secret he's bursting to tell. In the middle of one chapter he suddenly gives a long preview of what's coming up in the next chapter before just as suddenly returning to whatever long-winded point he was trying to make. I like the ideas he's working with, just not the way he indulges his own authority in trying to get those ideas across.

  10. 4 out of 5

    C

    I bought this after taking Theory and Practice of Poetry, and the two classes intersected really well. If you've been introduced as poetry purely as an intellectual exercise, you're missing out. Pinsky explores the importance of the oral nature of poetry in a way that can help you write poems and analyze them. Recommended for anybody who wants to develop as a poet or who wants to teach poetry.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Davina Busted

    Oh, Robert Pinsky! With this slender tome you transformed me from an eye-rolling poetry-is-dead malcontent to an invigorated poetry puzzler. I took the time to notice power verbs, to marvel at the incredible draw of rhyming couplets (primal?), and finally, to allow poetry's ambiguity to wash over me instead of trying to subdue it. Marvelous.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Zu

    This would be a great book for teaching poetry in the setting of a world literature class. Many of the elements can be compared with the sounds of poetry in other languages... just the sound ... not the content ... musicality of poetry alone can tell you a lot. Besides, it's such a fun read, I'm sure my students will love it as much as I do.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Vpal23

    More sophisticated than Oliver's discussion, Pinsky's examination of poetry is insightful but his discussion can be a bit elusive at times. Sometimes, Pinsky just makes me feel stupid. I have to read his sentences three or four times to translate what he's getting at; that said, it's well worth it. His intellect and prowess in poetry is simply dog-gone good and worth taking the time to read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Isla McKetta

    I'm a novice at poetry, and Pinsky's gentle look at rhythm, structure, and sound of a poem opened a whole new world to me. I can now feel the tension of a phrase as it pulls across a line. This book will make me a better writer of fiction, and maybe, just maybe, I'll try writing a poem.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cheri

    A helpful and unpretentious introduction to enjoying poetry. I'm so glad I read it -- I know I will refer to it again and again. Pinsky's pleasure in the sounds of poetry fills every page.

  16. 5 out of 5

    david

    it is what it sounds like: a poet laureate fulfilling obligations, little more.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    He really breaks it down elegantly. A must-have for any English teacher and/or lover of poetry who would like a refresher on scanning meter.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Stan Badgett

    Pinsky has taught me to pay closer attention to differences between sounds. I appreciate better than before the richness made possible by even slight variations in sound.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bernie Gourley

    As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem--such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem--such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits (i.e. more or less stressed.) By adopting a more flexible view of the concepts like accent (stress), rhyme, similarity of sound, one opens up limitless options for poetry. The book consists of five chapters. The front matter includes an introduction and a brief commentary on theory. The latter points out that there are no hard rules, but by paying attention to these concepts one can produce richer and more interesting sounding poems. Pinsky reviews the most common poetic terms (e.g. iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.) but also looks at how these are varied for effect in a way that is enjoyable to all but prosody hardliners. The chapters are: 1.) Accent and duration; 2.) Syntax and line; 3.) Technical terms and vocal realities; 4.) Like and unlike sounds; 5) Blank verse and Free verse. (fyi: Blank verse is unrhymed verse that has a regular meter (most commonly iambic pentameter. Free verse is unrhymed verse with irregular meter.) There are relatively few poems used as examples in this book. Some readers may find this a bit tedious and would prefer being exposed to more (and more varied) examples. However, other readers will enjoy drilling down into a few poems along several dimensions. That’s a matter of personal preference, but the reader should be aware of it. The book is less than 150 pages even with the back matter, which includes recommended readings and glossary of names and terms. It’s a quick read. I enjoyed this book. It’s not too technical, and can be followed by a reader whether they’ve had an extensive education into poetry or not. It’s not doctrinaire about prosody, which appeals to my personal preferences. It provoked some intriguing insights, such as the flexible approach to accent as well as poetry as an art that uses the body of reader as its medium—their respiratory systems, vocal chords, and related musculature how these sounds are produced. I’d recommend the book for poets and readers of poetry who are serious about the endeavor.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alarie

    I loved both Pinsky’s “Introduction” and “Theory” (pp. 3-9). Once he gets away from theory and philosophy into instruction, however, I feel the book becomes too ponderous, repetitive, and even contradicts the observations that first pulled me in. For example, he says “The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants. If we tried to learn such knowledge by elaborate rules or through brute, systematic memorization…we I loved both Pinsky’s “Introduction” and “Theory” (pp. 3-9). Once he gets away from theory and philosophy into instruction, however, I feel the book becomes too ponderous, repetitive, and even contradicts the observations that first pulled me in. For example, he says “The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants. If we tried to learn such knowledge by elaborate rules or through brute, systematic memorization…we would not be able to use them as fluently as we do.” Then he proceeds to try to give us elaborate analyses, rescanning the same passages over and over, implying we do need to memorize elaborate rules, even though he tells us in “Theory” that “There are no rules.” An especially annoying example of this is when he goes on for several pages about the powerful impact of combining words with Latin or French roots with Germanic words. (Isn’t that what the English language bestows on us already?) He says, ”I don’t mean to suggest that this combining and contrasting roots is a conscious process for the writer” and that Thomas Jefferson probably chose “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because he relished the sound without thinking about roots, so why go on and on about them? Nevertheless, there’s good information here, and the book’s short. One can skim over the parts that become tedious and enjoy it more than I did. The best message is to read good poetry and to reread or even memorize some favorite poems so you can carry the sound with you. You’ll absorb a lot of the magic without needing to label all the parts.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rob Baker

    Very insightful discussion of the various aspects of poetry's sounds. I'm I didn't fully grasp his complex ideas on rhythm but, having encountered them, will (I hope) better appreciate the art. The most succinct and helpful summary of his ideas seems to me to be contained in these observations: “The play between pitch and duration, between syntax and line, between like and unlike sounds, becomes a means of art” .... "This duality, too -- the play between free verse rhythms and iambic rhythms--ca Very insightful discussion of the various aspects of poetry's sounds. I'm I didn't fully grasp his complex ideas on rhythm but, having encountered them, will (I hope) better appreciate the art. The most succinct and helpful summary of his ideas seems to me to be contained in these observations: “The play between pitch and duration, between syntax and line, between like and unlike sounds, becomes a means of art” .... "This duality, too -- the play between free verse rhythms and iambic rhythms--can be an artistic means toward meaning and feeling” (97).

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Penninga

    I really enjoyed Pinsky’s analytical tone of the art of reading poetry. It gave me good insight into how my students can better analyze poetry within the realm of sound and syntax. He used perfect examples for each point, that I can use in my teaching next month. Great read for an English teacher or someone who loves the art and talent of poetry.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Amico

    An engaging, gentle introduction to the sounds and history packed into the poem. Not exclusively formal or classical poetry, either; Pinsky makes the case for the relevance of poetry's history with sound even in today's contemporary free-verse work. Could go a lot deeper into aspects, but a great guide to getting more out of poetry today or in the past.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rebekah Morgan

    He makes the point that the best way to read poetry is to read more poetry, which is true, but Pinsky also makes some helpful comments and points out ideas that I would have probably missed otherwise.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Steven Robertson

    This is a remarkably helpful book. Poetry is as much a vocal, aural art as it is a written one, and Pinsky's technical overview shines light on the interplays of sounds in poetry rather than simple "meaning."

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I read this book for class, and I have mixed feelings towards it. I didn't not enjoy it, nor did I enjoy it. But, I will say that it was an easy read, and that Pinksy does a fine job of explaining poetry.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    Pinsky seems to release a book every four years that collects his favorite poems. I'll take it; he's got great taste.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Skye

    Not sure if it is because I had SO much going on, but this was my least favorite. It had some good tidbits in here, but seemed over wordy - which also seemed ironic.

  29. 5 out of 5

    m.j.t.

    Poetry by ear This book is very helpful to understanding how to read poems. Reading by ear or sound gives pleasure and provides a solid foundation for finding meaning in a poem.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Parker Eisen

    Will change how you read and look at poetry.

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