Mitchell L. H. Douglas is the author of dying in the scarecrow’s arms, \blak\ \al-fə bet\, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award, and Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem, an NAACP Image Award nominee. He is a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets, a Cave Canem graduate, and Associate Professor of English at IUPUI.
Adrian Matejka: Thanks for taking the time to talk about music in poetry, Mitchell. It seems like a natural conversation to have given how musically resonant your new collection dying in the scarecrow’s arms is and that your first book, Cooling Board, was about the great Donny Hathaway. You’re already living in music! Let’s start out by narrowing things down some. Can you talk a little bit about where music in a poem comes from?
Mitchell L. H. Douglas: I write with the understanding that poetry is a condensed language that appeals to the senses. The expectation from the reader and the writer that a poem be condensed means it carries the emotional weight of a short story in much less time and space. The beauty in condensing language in this way is that it encourages the construction of metaphors to provide that emotional heft and the compressed language creates a kind of music that makes poetry sound much different than prose. That music means the poem is practically begging to be read aloud to fully enjoy the sound the poet creates. In fact, as a poet, it’s best to read your work aloud as you write and as you revise in order to ensure that you are creating an endearing and fluid music.
My way of explaining the importance of rhythm to my students is that it dictates the tone of a poem. When you are deep in the work of rendering a lived or imagined experience on the page, you have to consider ways in which the rhythm of the poem honors the emotional state you are attempting to create.
AM: I love your point that a poem needs to be read aloud for a reader/listener to fully enjoy in the sounds. Do you think there are different expectations musically for an audience when they are hearing a poem versus when they read the poem to themselves? I’m asking about the music of performance, maybe, but I’m not asking of the specific sonic brilliance of a poetry slam necessarily. I’m thinking about of how a poem’s music may or may not change based on the poem being performed by the poet themself.
MD: Absolutely. Sometimes, I think we’re listening for the poem to give us a different kind of truth sonically when someone else, especially the poet, reads a poem aloud. We listen to see if we’ve missed a pause, stop, or emphasis on image and action we might have overlooked in our own reading. I don’t think of it as being critical of ourselves as readers, it’s just a matter of being hungry and actively searching for all the poem has to offer. We want a fully realized experience.
AM: What are some of the devices or strategies we can use to impose musicality on language? Which are your favorite devices and why?
MD: End rhyme in contemporary poetry has fallen out of favor because of its predictability, so I find myself relying on a host of other means to create rhythm. I often think of the LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) essay “How You Sound??” where he asserts “MY POETRY is whatever I think I am. (Can I be light and weightless as a sail?? Heavy & clunking like 8 black boots.)” Naturally, the question becomes “How do you make a poem sound like the thud of heavy shoes or a sail caught in wind off water??” And, yes, why not adopt Baraka’s double question mark or add a third to make it your own “sound”??? Alliteration, assonance, slant rhyme, and, in very small doses, blank verse (moments of creating that unrhymed iambic heartbeat) are helpful to me as is an awareness of the power of different sound groups in the alphabet. It’s important to know that words that begin with liquids like “l” and “m” can slow the pace of a poem and create a calming effect, and the sibilants “s” and “sh” rise loudly off the page like cymbals. It is often said that Baraka was writing a form of jazz with his poems, and I believe that music speaks to his passion and connection to words. I love jazz, but I am also a child of the golden age of Hip-Hop. Not only that, I am a very urban-centered poet (you can take the man out of the city, but the city in me ain’t goin’ NOWHERE!!!). I want to sound like the rise of glass and steel, the gruff of gutter and pavement (notice the emotional impact of words that begin with gutturals like hard “g” and “gr”). When I attempt to create that city-centered mood in a poem, I think about Hip-Hop and the percussive pop of plosives like “p” and “b” and alliteration for making beats on the page.
AM: Now you have me thinking about the ways in which we use punctuation to create music—Etheridge Knight and his forward slashes or Emily Dickinson and her em dashes. E.E. Cummings and everything he did in his poems. It also makes me think of the way so many young poets are still learning the nuances of punctuation in poetry. If there was one piece of advice you would give young poets about using punctuation to create or accentuate music, what would it be?
MD: When I think of the rhythm of songs that I like, no matter the genre, I understand that rhythm is a question of hesitation. When does the beat rest, when does it advance? Using punctuation allows you to exhibit a high level of both auditory and visual control of the line. Punctuation makes the difference between a pause and a hard stop clear whether the poet is there or not. With a period firmly in place at the close of a line, there’s no question about how you, the poet, wanted the breath of the speaker to be heard. As a writer who shares his work with the world through publishing and readings, I value that kind of control (especially when I remember that my readers may have never heard me speak or have any familiarity with my natural speech patterns in a regular conversation). I want my specific strain of the conversational English my poems are built on to speak well for me even when I’m not in the room.
It’s funny because in my early education as a poet, I avoided punctuation. I think that happened because Nikky Finney was my first formal teacher, and I noticed there were times when she wasn’t using it (look at the poems in Rice for example). Or we come to poetry with a sense that punctuation is a foreign object, as if commas and semicolons stand in the way of freedom of voice. I never require my students to use punctuation, but I make it clear that if they don’t, they need to be able to utilize a system like Finney once used: a frequent line break where punctuation would have been and capitalization to show where one thought ends and the next begins.
AM: What poem do you think is the best example of musicality (tough question, no doubt) and what makes the poem swing for you specifically? What are some other poems who you see as being emblematic of musical verse?
MD: I love Toi Derricotte’s “The Tour” from her book Tender and I often use it to illustrate the power and importance of being intentional about the music you create in a poem.
The castle, always on an
outcrop of indifference;
the discards on the way.
Where our mothers were held we walk now
as tourists, looking for cokes, film the bathroom.
A few steps beyond the brutalization, we
stand in the sun:
This area for tourists only.
Our very presence an ironic
point of interest to our guide.
“The Tour” is part of an eight-poem sequence called “Exits from Elmina Castle: Cape Coast, Ghana.” The “ironic point of interest”—a black woman touring a slave castle in Western Africa—is conflict enough to make this poem worth a read, but it’s Derricotte’s unique approach to creating music that makes me share the poem with students. The alternating “a” and “o” sounds in the first couplet create what I can only call a kind of alliteration with vowels that is both unusual and captivating. Not only that, the alternating “a” and “o” words rise and fall in pitch like the rise and fall of waves in an ocean. I can’t help but believe Derricotte did that on purpose given the importance of the castle’s proximity to the ocean. Derricotte intensifies the feeling of the movement of water in the third couplet with alliteration that relies on the repetition of words that begin with “w.” It’s an exciting musical feat and the kind of awareness we should all strive for as poets.
Additionally, I can’t help but think of “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks as a great example of musicality (it’s another favorite that I use when teaching). Ms. Brooks famously said that she wished other poems she had written got as much attention, but its appeal is hard to deny. It’s short, to the point, and doesn’t complicate its message with the allusive or semantic difficulty. But the real treat is the music Ms. Brooks creates.
We Real Cool
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Ms. Brooks creates music with alliteration and repetition (the “w” of “We,” the “l” of “Left,” “Lurk,” and “late,” the “s” of “Sing sin” and “j” of “Jazz June”) consonance (“real cool”), assonance (“Sing sin”) and hints at a possible end rhyme scheme (“cool/school,” “late/straight,” “sin/gin,” and “June/soon” that instead becomes internal rhyme because of the repeating “We” that ends lines one through seven. And it’s a breathless “We” when she reads the poem which makes the music that much more striking.
After an epigraph with alliteration (POOL PLAYERS) and internal rhyme (SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL) that tells us how many people have gathered, the first line begins with four syllables that sound like an iamb and a trochee standing back to back, the stressed syllables at the center of the line. When the whispered “We” ends all but the eighth and final line, it calls for seven lines of the poem to begin with a lurching, forward-leaning rhythm. Lines two through seven are the three-syllable antibacchius foot (two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable), and the eighth line closes the poem in the haunting “Die soon,” a spondee of two stressed syllables. For Ms. Brooks, I imagine that rhythm felt like the voices and movements of the people in her beloved South Side Chicago: constantly in motion and moving forward.
Persist by Mitchell L. H. Douglas
She plants the first kiss
in the back of a taxi, cabbie
craning his neck, eyes in rearview
to catch the warm press of lips.
from cab to night, Capital
breath pinning us to the hip
of One Way & DON’T
WALK, signs blinking white
surrender as we stand
in more eyes, the whip
kiss again. Ready
for knees, the kneel
& spin of our steal-
away song, I stop her
in winter’s thaw, chirp
I love you
before feet rush
our bodies indoors
to corner tables
she laughs, & I
lose my coat,
For an example of musicality in my own work, I have chosen “Persist I.,” the introduction of a five-part sequence that runs throughout my latest book, dying in the scarecrow’s arms. This series of poems is meant to speak to all the ways we love—both good and bad—in the midst of crisis. “Persist I.” illustrates a conflict between two people who are attempting to define their relationship but have different levels of feeling for each other. The rhythmic scheme employed here is an attempt to show the intensity of emotion the couple feels by introducing moments of concentrated rhythm (the interplay of assonance with “a” and alliteration with “c” in the first four lines is one example). I hope that the rhythm gives the reader a sense of the level of anxiety the speaker experiences and an understanding of what’s at stake.
Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month in collaboration with Indiana Poet Laureate Adrian Matejka. We’ll be sharing interviews with Indiana poets, discussion on poetic form and other poetry. See the full span on National Poetry Month posts here.
Adrian Matejka is the Indiana Poet Laureate and is the author of The Big Smoke, Map to the Stars and many other works.