The Sound of a Poem

By Dana Yost

Sometimes, the way a poem sounds is amost as important, or at least as interesting, as what it has to say.

In fact, sound is one of the things that defines poetry, separates it from other types of writing. End rhyme, slant rhyme, alliteration, the flow of the piece itself, and other factors contribute to the sound, or music, of a poem.

I’lll give you an example:

Leo Dangel’s title poem for one of his last books, Saving Singletrees. The title of the poem alone has three “s” sounds in it. The poem itself has another 59 “s” sounds, to hammer home the effect of the sound — and to hammer home the effect of singletrees themselves.

A singletree was a bar that was yoked being a pulling animal — a horse or an ox — and the wagon it was pulling. Dangel, who was the SDSPS’ posthumos poet of merit last year, wrote the poem as a reflection on memory, on thie past, on things on the farm the way they used to be. The singletree is the metaphor for loss and memory — something from Dangel’s youth.

It is a seven-stanza poem. Five of the stanzas have the world “singletree” in them. In each of those five stanzas, Dangel uses the “s” sound 10 times.

By wrting so many “s” sounds into the poem, Dangel wants to make sure we don’t miss the significance of not only the singletree but the metaphor. It keeps ringing as we read, like a bell or a chime. Still, when I first read it, I almost missed the depth of the effect. It was only when I read it out loud that it sank in. I finally counted out loud the number of “s” sounds. Could Leo have written so many by accident, or did he plan the poem that way?

I wrote to him, saying, almost naively, “Leo, did you know your poem has 59 ’s’ sounds in it?“

He wrote back, politely: “of course.”

How silly I felt! Leo was a master poet. Of course, he would not only know how many “s” sounds he had in the poem, he would have written it that way — he would have revised and refined the poem to make room for so many “s” sounds, and to make the poem make sense, not just be a collection of sound. It would not have occurred just by accident.

It is a significant poem, both for what it says about memory, about times past, and, for how it sounds. The last lines, in fact, are these: “‘Singletree:’ I’ve always liked the sound / of it—a musical harkening back / to a live tree with branches and roots.” Sound helps strengthen the poem, make singletrees a terrific metaphor, makes one long for what’s no longer with us.

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