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Proposing Some Natural Laws of Poetic Sound
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 8, 2013
– edited on blog, May 23, 2013, Dec. 10, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"Nostalgia™" by Robert Hershon – Poetry Daily, 2/8/13


from Goldfish and Rose (Hanging Loose Press)
poem found here

first lines:
At Uncle Li's
Golden Lotus New



the poetic ear (and line breaks)


Good fortune that this poem follows behind "Geckos in Obscure Light," two days ago, and my comment about punchline poems, which I can now amend: there is nothing wrong with punchlines in a poem, if you are telling a joke.

Nothing to complain about with this little poem. The rhythm of the last three lines of the first stanza feels a little off to me with the present line endings – I've spent a few minutes now exploring alternatives. But that's for discussion about rhythms and sound and line endings, a discussion that usually comes to a positive net result (and inevitable between poets with sensitive ears). Love the break up of the opening lines and continue to all the way up to those last three.

And then there is that line break after the "to" in the middle of the second stanza. Which wholly works, because the break is to a purpose that is natural to and an inherent extension of the poem: something nice to see what with my having seen so many poets justify their ending a line with a preposition with pedantic mantras taught them at their workshops and MFAs, yet who are utterly oblivious to a fundamental critique: it sounds terrible. That is, unless that awkwardness of sound is, as here, being put to a purpose.

Let's propose a couple natural laws, to wit, of poetic sound:

  • There is no excuse for not developing your poetic ear (which includes not just sound but rhythm).
  • There is no substitute for developing your poetic ear.
  • The poetic ear is essential to poetic sophistication (insofar as there is any aural aspect to the poet's work).
  • The sophisticated, developed poetic ear always trumps a poetic technique or rule (which means realizing workshop/MFA taught technique is ersatz poetics and little more – read Gombrich's Art and Illusion, especially as concerns schema).
  • Line breaks are unavoidably part of the aural experience of a poem. When they are not, it is with poems that are little more than paragraphs with close margins, left justified. And such poems may technically be poems, but they are nearly invariably not that terribly much of a poem, and are, thus, mostly disposable. (If not ignorable.)
  • Ergo, a poet must pay attention to the aural aspects of line breaks.

Yes, Virginia, there is talent necessary to poetic sophistication, just as with everything else in the world. And if A.E. Housman says your line break is clumsy, shove your workshop wisdom deep in your pocket and read and read and more importantly study and study (perhaps I should say sing and sing?) until you can hear that clumsiness too. There's a lot to learn about line endings in comparing this poem with less successful (or flat bad) poems. I recommend the effort.


I could also talk about the ideation, and want to. This little joke-poem (I mean that in the good sense) would make for a great class discussion about literary ideation (and how not to screw it up). But enough for one post, except to say I laughed. Out loud.