By Judith Barrington
I come to the thrilling idea of narrative medicine as first a poet and second a patient. My first poetry book was published in 1985 and my fifth (a “New and Selected”) will come out next spring from Salmon Publishing. In between, there have been chapbooks, collaborations with artists and musicians, and poems that will never be published but provoked a good round of laughter at someone’s birthday.
I have always been dedicated to the study of prosody (the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry) a subject that will never run out of surprises and new insights. One crucial piece of my learning was the strong connection between the rhythms of language (in poetry the rhythms of poetic lines and stanzas) and the sounds of language (vowels, consonants and words), and the body from which those rhythms and sounds emerge. Although I took very few classes in poetry or poetics, I was very fortunate in that my first teacher used a text book that is so amusing and smart that I still use it in my own workshops, although my copy is almost entirely held together with sticky tape. *
Why not buy a new copy? you may ask. Well, there is a good reason that I keep the first edition: a chapter called “Gold in the Ore: the sounds of English” is illustrated by drawings of what we must do with our bodies, particularly our mouths and throats, to produce various vowels and consonants. My two favorite are “Man saying ‘Ugh!’” and “Woman saying ‘Sn—!’” If you try saying these sounds yourself, and slightly exaggerate them, you will see immediately how essential your body structure is to their production. Sadly newer editions of the book omitted these splendid illustrations.
The rhythms of language that we manipulate into pleasing poetry, are not rhythms that exist solely among the words of poems and songs. The fine poet, Alfred Corn, in his book aptly titled The Poem’s Heartbeat, says that the word rhythm comes from the Greek meaning “measured motion.” To hear it, the ear must hear a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals. For many reasons human beings find this experience pleasurable and deeply engaging. Why? he asks. Well, because this regular recurrence is found in contexts that may be fundamental to forming our consciousness: an infant develops hearing before it is born and of course s/he hears the mother’s heartbeat—a regularly recurring sequence. Add to that the steady rhythm of the mother’s walk, experienced as a physical sensation of rocking to and fro. At birth there comes the addition of a new rhythm: the intake and exhalation of breath, which is crucial to the structural form of a poem (where to break the lines, for example). Later there are all kinds of visual rhythms: night and day; a flight of steps from one level to another; repeating patterns on textiles or wallpaper; phases of the moon. Continue reading