How a Poem Helped Me to Write Prose


W.H. Auden once said something to the effect that people who want to be poets because they have some important things to say probably won’t become poets, but those who want to be poets because they like fooling around with words might get their wish.

I became a prose writer, not a poet, but it was a poem an elementary school teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas, brought to the attention of her class that introduced me to the pleasure that words can provide, and certainly was an influence on my writing career. That poem—Sidney Lanier’s “The Song of the Chattahoochee”—gives nature, here a river, a voice. Perhaps only a child can experience the kind of delight I felt in discovering the ability of rhythm and rhyme, as well as of the sounds of vowels and consonants, to mimic the fast flow of the river from the hills (“I hurry amain to reach the plain, / Run the rapid and leap the fall”)  to its later, more lethargic movement on that plain (“The willful water weeds held me thrall”). It was such a revelation to me of how sound abets sense that all these decades later I still remember the details of the room—the windows behind me, the fact that I and the other students were sitting not in a normal classroom with its individual desks, but in a kind of seminar room in which we were grouped together around a large table.

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James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land. His next book, The Complete Court of Memory, is forthcoming.


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