`The tension between sound and verse'

POETRY is meant to be recited, transmitted to the inner ear through the outer ear rather than through the eye. My mother, Babette Deutsch, loved to read aloud, from her own verse and from her favorites over at least seven centuries. She read to audiences assembled for this purpose, and she read to her own family. I remember sitting in the garden of a rented country house listening to my mother reading from Yeats's journals to my father, my younger brother, and me.

I remember too, being taken on a trip, as a small child, to hear her read at a country day school outside New York. She never played down to her audiences, even the youngest ones, and they responded to her sonorous voice and the tone color of the sounds, even when they couldn't grasp the more sophisticated levels of meaning in the poem.

She did not like to explain poems in any event, and often quoted Archibald MacLeish:

A poem should not mean, but be

Palpable and mute

As a globed fruit.

A great poem, she observed, grew out of the tension between sound and sense.

She could be highly indignant when children were offered trivial verse in school, on the theory that they could not appreciate the major poets. She made a special trip to my school to complain to the principal about this practice, and, hearing her report of the interview, I was just as happy not to have been present for it.

My mother's indignation was one of the grand passions of her life. She didn't reserve it for poetasters and pedants, but turned it full force on politicians, government officials, business leaders, and, from time to time, her own family. She scorned the material world, recalling cheerfully that as a bride she had rejected a proffered wedding gift of sterling flatware in favor of a set of the classic New York edition of Henry James novels.

In her political judgments she operated more on the level of instinct than of reason. She passionately wanted political leaders to rise above the corruption of power, and she took their failure to do so as a personal affront.

By instinct she was a pacifist and a socialist. As a young woman, she embraced Woodrow Wilson's declaration that America was ``too proud to fight'' in World WarI, but she lived on into World WarII, where she became a partisan of United States intervention. She and my father visited the Soviet Union in 1923, expecting to find a brave new world, and were among the earliest of American liberal intellectuals to be disillusioned, even before the rise of Stalinism.

In her encyclopedic work, ``Poetry in Our Time,'' Babette Deutsch quotes Thomas Hardy: ``...if way to the Better there be, it exacts a good look at the Worst.'' She never flinched from that look, and it informed her vision of all the world's delights.

Rhythm is an insistent demand

As natural as breathing, the ebb and flow of tides, the return of the seasons, it is immediately experienced and recognized with pleasure, but it eludes definition. Rhythm is perceived in a sequence of events when they recur so regularly that the time intervals they occupy are felt to be either nearly equal to one another or symmetrical. The experience is tinged with emotion and often affords a sense of balance...

...In speech, be it good prose or verse, rhythm functions overtly and with particular cogency. In verse, each time interval in a sequence is occupied by syllables and pauses, and is usually marked by a beat. ... Since the syllables that compose English words vary in pitch as do tones in music, and also in length and accent, these elements affect, to hamper or to help, the rhythm of our verse. Great virtuosos are apt to develop a characteristic one of their own, so that it is natural to speak of a Miltonic or a Yeatsian rhythm. This individual rhythm depends in part on the poet's use of pauses and largely on the nature of his vocabulary: whether like Milton's it abounds in Latinate polysyllables, like that of Frost it sticks close to plain speech, or like Eliot's it moves more freely than either between the pedantic and the popular.

-From ``Poetry Handbook'' by Babette Deutsch

Vespers Dusk comes down over roofs and towers, Lights leap up in city and tent, Men lay words to their hearts for comfort, Story and prayer and argument.

Babette Deutsch

Mr. Yarmolinsky, the author of several books and currently provost at the University of Maryland, was special assistant to the secretary of defense during the Kennedy administration.

Poet Babette Deutsch wrote about half a dozen volumes of verse, including ``Epistle to Prometheus'' and ``Fire for the Night.'' The poem ``Thoughts at the Year's End,'' which appears in ``Fire for the Night'' won The Nation Poetry Prize in 1929, while she was Phi Beta Kappa poet at Columbia. In addition to doing many translations from the Russian and German in collaboration with her husband, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, she wrote four novels and several books of criticism, including ``Poetry Handbook,'' still in wide use in college classrooms. In the 1920s and '30s a number of her poems were published in The Christian Science Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to `The tension between sound and verse'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today