A Sound Analysis

I said on April 2 that “Blackberry Picking” was the first poem I sound analyzed. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true. Seven or so years before that, I was first introduced to the musical Cats. I love cats, so naturally, I checked the video out from the library and watched it over and over until my mom said that the songs were based on a series of poems. Poetry, I thought? I like poetry. By then, I had memorized half of A Light in the Attic, which I probably read once a week. So my mom went to the big bookshelf in our back room and pulled down a slim, taped-up, falling apart copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. My life was about to change forever.

Cats and Shel Silverstein fell into a discarded pile (don’t worry, I picked up Silverstein again.) I read and re-read that book I don’t know how many times, drumming the melodies of the musical out of my head, determined to come to the original poems the way a new reader might. I fell head over heels in love with the Rum Tum Tugger, Jennyanydots, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Bustopher Jones, more than I ever could have watching Cats. I set about systematically memorizing the entire book (although I didn’t get very far past The Naming of Cats.) But as I read, I discovered something: the natural music of the poetry.

The music I’m talking about here isn’t the type of music I talked about in conjunction with “Blackberry Picking.” That is, I didn’t suddenly hear a symphony echoing behind the poem. But each poem seemed to have a natural rhythm to it, as if it was being asked to be read in a certain manner.

The poem in particular which I would like to talk about today is “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” because to me, the natural rhythm couldn’t be more obvious. The first thing I noticed about the poem (though not consciously) was that the first content word is “whisper,” almost as if the poem is asking it of the reader. So I complied. I whispered the first lines, and in conjunction with the heavy use of anapest, the whisper didn’t sound so much like a single whisper, but many, rippling through a crowd searching for Skimbleshanks–just like the opening image of the poem. I loved it.

Years later, I learned by friend, Quinn, loved, the musical Cats. She had the soundtrack on her ipod and listened to it all the time. One day, she was listening to “Skimbleshanks,” and I couldn’t help but thinking that it sounded all wrong. The song didn’t transport me into the poem the way the original poem did. There was no whisper. There was no worried crowd. There was no… train. You see, the anapestic rhythm of the poem, as well as it’s heavy use of sibilant, “s” sounds invokes the sound of the train moving on the tracks and its whistle, respectively. The poem itself sounds like a train, and why shouldn’t it? It’s about one. It took years of poetic and linguistic study for me to discover this, but it was that first step aboard the Midnight Mail when I was ten that launched my career as a sound poet and performer.

I do not include a copy of the poem here, as it is still under copyright, but I encourage you to look for one. (In fact, you can win one in the Big Poetry Giveaway.) You might also look up the song from Cats and compare the different sounds of the poem.

Continuing with the theme of lying, my poem today comes from Maureen Thorson’s April 2 prompt: write a poem that tells a lie:

No, I had a lovely day.

I slept ‘til almost noon.

I got there, not a minute late,

and made my interview.

She asked questions that said nothing,

and I said nothing back.

Can’t say why I was blushing,

I’m clearly made for work like that.

Stopped to get mom’s birthday gift.

Thought she’d like the green one more.

It’ll look nicer on her wrist.

And I got home before the storm.


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