The Word ‘Plum’

If I were to teach poetry I would start with the most rudimentary element: sound. Many people shy away from poetry because they’re intimidated by it– by not understanding its language, its metaphors, its meaning (and yes, being afraid to give a poem more than a single read). Well, I have news for the general public: a poem is not a vortex. So save yourself the flailing and don’t get consumed by the need to dissect, isolate, and make meaning of every line and phrase and punctuation mark. As T.S. Eliot has said, genuine poetry can communicate even before it is understood.

How does that work, you ask?

Every poem has different elements at play, but I will say this: generally, poets listen to sounds. They collect onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they mean– click, crackle, murmur, shuffle, whoosh), consciously arrange assonance, consonance, alliteration, and sometimes they even make up their own words when existing language falls short (two famous examples: Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”). Many employ rhyme, that pattern of sounds that enchants us as children, fixes in our memory and pleases our ears even as adults. But what a poet really seizes upon is the music and texture of each and every individual word.

To get an idea of what I mean, consider “The Word ‘Plum’” by Helen Chasin. Many of the words are not even remotely related to plums. But see what she does with it. For best results– to feel the words in your mouth and catch them with your ears– read this poem aloud.

The Word ‘Plum’
by Helen Chasin

The word plum is delicious

pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur

full in the mouth and falling
like fruit

taut skin
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh

and reply, lip and tongue
of pleasure.

SO GOOD. What other poems out there are great for celebrating sound?


8 responses to “The Word ‘Plum’”

  1. I love this post. It rustles delicate cords with which poetry is woven from words. I never rely knew that until I found myself in a different language and I could no longer hear those cords, weave the sounds from words. My world shrank. I am only now trying to expend it to bring looms in again. To weave sounds from words …

    1. Thank you, Daniela! Yes, it’s crazy how easily we can overlook the music of words until we have an epiphany like that… (and I would love, one day, to be able to recognize the cadences of the Croatian language :)) Just today I checked out a book of Pablo Neruda (Los versos del Capitán) and, although my Spanish is a little rusty, omg! He is ear candy!

      1. I love Neruda … and Lorca since I was very young. If you would like glimpse into Croatian poetry, there is a poem by Tin Ujevic one of Croatian’ greatest poets I translated into English on 21 May 2012 (post titled: “Daily Lament”). I remember feeling sadness once I read his words in English … sadness for my language.

  2. Mike Schultz Paintings Avatar
    Mike Schultz Paintings

    Great post, Julie! I love me some onomatopoeia too. <<>>

    1. Thank you! I love poems (or lyrics, or names, or anything!) that pay attention to sound. Even the word ‘onomatopoeia’ is fun to say!

  3. At the risk of shameless promotion, how about this one?

    1. Shameless promo aside, I loved it! 🙂

  4. This post should be read at schools across the country…

    Interestingly enough, onomatopoeia comes from Greek, and consists of two words: onoma (name) and poio (to make). Literally, then, it simple means “to give a name”. However, “Nicholas the Onomatopoios” sounds so much cooler than “Nicholas the Name-giver,” don’t you think? 🙂

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