Sunday, May 24, 2009

Poetry as Sound


In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The little penguins play,
And one dead albatross was found
At Karehana Bay.

In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The seabirds haunt the cave,
And often in the summertime
The penguins ride the wave.

In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The penguins live, they say,
But one dead albatross they found
At Karehana Bay.

Denis Glover

Poetry existed as sound long before it pinned down by the written word. We are a speaking species. Poetry, linking to dance, song and story, is a device developed as a form of speech. The use of doggerel and repetitive, imitative or interesting sounds is natural, especially in childhood. We savour resonance. Threnody is an example of a poem primarily about sound. I’d say to students, speak it out loud and savour the sounds.

I found it difficult when I taught poetry to older teenagers to persuade them of this importance of sound. Pity, younger children delight in sound, just the sheer delight of it. My mother’s mother Granny had a store of nursery rhymes and songs which she taught me off by heart, `little pig, little pig where have you been’, ‘pop goes the weasel’, ‘Jack and Jill’, ‘see saw, Marjory Daw’, and ‘oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clemens’. A better seedbed for poetry is hard to imagine.

While I was going to Little River primary school the local Maori school closed. A student from there Charlie Timothy was my desk-mate for the year. I took my Winnie the Pooh book to school. The two of us used to go round chanting Cottleston Pie, a great nonsense rhyme – looking back a very strange cross-cultural activity.

The first poem I recall being taught Walter de la Mare’s Silver was based upon sound.

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream


  1. I agree that sound is so important when teaching poetry--last week I had some senior students read aloud 'The love song of Alfred J Prufrock' and the musical quality of the piece came to life. It's good for them to hear it.

  2. Yes, that's why so many liners friom it lingerlyrically in the mind.

  3. Oops. liners should be lines and there should be a gap between linger and lyrically. I'll have to learn how to edit my comments.