Muisc in Poetry

I was first introduced to Seamus Heany’s “Blackberry Picking” in my senior year of high school, when I had to write a five page analysis of it. By then, I had spent a year writing various essays on literature and was truly loving the process of pulling a work apart and putting it back together. I had developed a process of reading the material and making a list of every interesting idea I could come up with about it, no matter how superficial. My list for “Blackberry Picking” could have included everything from “heroic couplets” to “Blackberry bush when I was five–nostalgia” to “berry picking–The Sound of Music.” I would then pick several ideas and free write on them for at least a solid page, and (hopefully) draw up an essay out of these paragraphs.

What I like about this process, especially with poetry, is that in the heat of the writing moment, I claim things which wouldn’t have otherwise have occurred to me. The reason I especially like it with poetry is that the process usually has me reading the poem over and over until I have it half memorized, and that is how to sound analyze a poem–you read it so much that the words break down in your ears and the whole thing just becomes a rhythm, a piece of music. And that is what I heard as I listened to “Blackberry Picking” over and over.

I don’t remember all the ideas I wrote about concerning this poem, or what the final essay said, but I do remember taking one free write session to describe the poem as a piece of music. I detailed where the melody rose and fell, which instruments wove in and out of each other, the tempo, dynamics, perhaps even the time signature or key signature. I distinctly remember noting the exact word which coincided with a symbol crash, though I no longer remember where that crash occurs. That’s one of the great things about poetry and music alike. They are fleeting, and the same piece never sounds exactly the same the second time you hear it. After six years in school bands, I had taken to claiming that music is a language and this, for me, was the incontestable proof.

My experience with “Blackberry Picking” was another step in my journey through sound poetry, and and an important influence in my work, though most Heany fans would probably not connect the two. Heany’s a huge name in literature. He’s got perhaps the (currently) most used translation of Beowulf, and he’s won the Nobel Prize. But I include him here because several years ago, he opened my ears.

You can read it yourself here: Blackberry Picking, or listen to it read by NPR’s Tom Cole. Unfortunately, he does not read it in an Irish accent. (For one of the other discoveries I made writing that essay was that read in an Irish accent, or at least a seventeen year old American’s version of an Irish accent, the slant rhymes become full rhymes.) But try it yourself. See if you can hear the symphony behind the words.

Today’s poem is a prayer from the Rool, the Muñ text of Pmrute (the female face of God.) In Muñ, when one commits a crime against another, one usually confesses it to Maimrute, but when one commits a crime against oneself, one usually confesses it Pmrute. Again, translated from the Mermish:

Pmrute, I have sinned against you,
for I have sinned against myself.
Like a thief, I have kicked the door of my heart off its hinges
and stolen the jewels of my soul.
I have poured poison in my own cup.
I have poured my blood into the water
to attract the sharks of hatred.
I have let a great white loathing swallow me whole.
The scales of happiness and sorrow always tip back and forth
but I have broken them.
Forgive me, Pmrute
and teach me to forgive myself.


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