Why I Love Poetry: The Sound of Words

by Jacquelyn Malone
This is the first of a series on “Why I Love Poetry.”

Mom's poetry book

Mom's poetry book

My mother used to build a fire, pull me onto her lap and, instead of reading nursery rhymes, she’d open her high school poetry textbook. (Imagine a high school text devoted solely to poetry!) Reading poems to her four-year-old was a winter ritual. I still remember the warmth of those evenings – the fire, the hot chocolate, her cozy lap, and the sound of the words. I knew several of those poems by heart before I learned to read. And I was astounded when I found the book among her things as I cleaned out her rooms and realized I could still quote most of the eleven quatrains of Whittier’s “In School Days,” even though I’m sure I never read it in school. I probably hadn’t heard it since I was seven or eight, and it’s my mother’s voice I hear when I say it to myself.

Her textbook was old even then, published in 1923, the poems selected by A.B. De Mille, who was Secretary of the New England Association of Teachers of English. And both my mother and I went to school in small Tennessee farming villages. The poems reflect New England far more than the rural South, but somehow I perceived their elusive and inaccessible distance as mythic and somewhat magical.

The pages of the book are now deeply yellowed and brittle. My mother’s notes – sometimes the dates when a poem would be discussed in class, and sometimes just squiggly lines, which you can see faintly in the photo at the side – say little about my mother’s original reaction to the poems, nor do they suggest she would want to read them to her children.

When I moved to New England and discovered the Blacksmith House in Cambridge with its historic sign out front, I found myself staggered by its reality – I could see that spreading chestnut tree even though it had disappeared years before. Then living in Gloucester I found that there really was a wreck of the Hesperus and that the reef of Norman’s Woe was just a stone’s throw from Hammond Castle, which sits on Hesperus Avenue at the westernmost point of Gloucester’s outer harbor. And, of course, the state still marks the route of Paul Revere’s ride from the Old North Church to Lexington and Concord. New England was the land my ear knew as poetic.

But for years I forgot poetry. I was busy raising my two children and dealing with the everyday. Then one day, after my children entered school, I took a course in modern poetry at Salem State with Dr. Michael Antonakes. Dr. A., as he was known, is also an accomplished playwright and actor as well as graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and when we took apart a poem in his class to see how it worked, he made sure we put it together again in all its sensuous beauty. The class often read a poem aloud three times, so that we never lost the magic of the sound. The final reading was always by Dr. A. himself.

His readings were never histrionic. In fact they were conversational. They reminded me of a recitation years ago by Sir Laurence Olivier on the Johnny Carson show. Carson asked the actor to recite his favorite poem. Olivier turned to the camera, and with a calm, clear voice, he began, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Through the frame of the TV screen you felt he was speaking directly to you with meaningful clarity.

The course with Dr. A. led to a wonderful course in creative writing at Harvard Extension with Lloyd Schwartz. And his course led to others where I could indulge my love of the melody of words.

It is always sound that lures me to poetry – much more than meaning or story or idea or artful language play, though for the poem to stay lashed to my mind, I know it has to embody more.

It amazes me sometimes to think of how sound affects the human mind. For what possible evolutionary reason should it be so addictive? Maybe that addiction compels us to imitate what we hear and, therefore, learn to speak. But for some of us that addiction lasts far beyond toddler speech. It becomes a powerful and – and might I say – even a narcotic craving.

Jacquelyn Malone is Mass Poetry's web content director and a former Senior Web Writer/ Editor at IBM and Lotus Development Corp. She taught both technical and scientific writing and editing at Northeastern, and writes poetry. She has won a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship Grant in Poetry, is the author of a chapbook titled All Waters Run to Lethe, and has been published in numerous journals, including Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, and Cortland Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart and have appeared on the website Poetry Daily.  She is the mother of two children and has six grandchildren.