Sound and Sense


Often poetry depends on the poet’s finding not the right word, but the wrong one. Well, maybe not the wrong word, but the word that we didn’t know was right—the word we didn’t expect—in advance.

This effect typically involves a substitution of one word for another along the semiotic axis of language—that is, language as a sign system in which words link with other words by virtue of their sounds and letters, rather than the semantic axis along which they point beyond words to ideas and things. Poetry only works toward the second, referential axis by exploring the first. Its business is with the words inside, under, or to one side of other words. From the chaotic play of sound and letters, and their potential nonsense, fresh meanings come.

Mary Jo Salter has described this basic but subtle dimension of poetry in an essay on Emily Dickinson, whose poems are rife with “unwritten puns”: “for instance, when [Dickinson] writes, ‘All the Heavens were a Bell,’ she may also want us to think that all the Heavens were a Hell.” “Heaven” and “Hell” are paired terms whose connection is so deeply ingrained in us that Dickinson’s striking choice of “Bell” subliminally summons “Hell” even as it swerves from it.

We hear Salter listening to words in this way in her own poems. Consider how close the title phrase in “So Far” is to the poem’s key word, “suffer.” The whole poem is generated by that proximity. The moral and epistemological question Salter is raising—what do any of us know about life “so far”?—itself suggests an answer: “so far” we know “only that we suffer”; and we suffer “for nothing,” without result or reward, because living is by nature ongoing and incomplete. So far/suffer : by making us ponder the connection, Salter implies that the very limitedness of our knowledge is part of what we suffer from.

Or take the poem “Aloe.” Here, the self-healing properties of the houseplant, with its soothing juice, remind Salter that, even if she suffers, she must—and can—take care of her own wounds. Although she might resist it out of stoic pride, self-care is something the plant seems to say she should “allow.” The aloe advises her to ease up and make allowances. Magically, the name of the plant itself has healing powers.

Over a long career (she will publish her eighth book of poems this summer), Salter has written a poetry of daily life, rooted in family and personal relationships, set forth in rhyme and meter, and defined by rhetorical balance and sly wit in a manner reminiscent of Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop (mentioned here in “Fruitcake”).

We tend to think of rhyme and meter as expressing a high degree of control on the part of the poet. But they involve putting the sound of words first, and to that extent, letting words take the lead. The point is to enter a “dimension,” Salter jokes in “Last Words,” not so different perhaps from “dementia,” or the “possessive”—no, “progressive”—aphasia that she is afraid of inheriting from her father.  Playfully and painfully, that poem points up how close are verbal inspiration and failure, the wrong word and the right one.  When the poet is “mating mistakes,” she is making meaning.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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