Essential Pleasures: Introduction
Pleasure in poetry, like speech itself, is both intellectual and bodily. Spoken language, an elaborate code of articulated grunts, provides a satisfaction central to life, with all the immediacy of our senses. Th ough complex, the pleasure is not arcane. We learn it as we learn to speak: informally and avidly. A small child who enjoys the anonymous, traditional sentence,
Moses supposes his toeses are roses,
But Moses supposes erroneously
feels a tickle of gratification, conceptual and sensory, as the sounds perform their combat dance with the meanings, joining and parting. In this example, that intricate choreography involves teasing forms of the plural. The sounds are similar and the meanings vary: body and mind, in an experience that is essential to the art of poetry.
Poetry in American Sign Language, a language that intricately formalizes bodily gestures, also demonstrates this fundamental principle, coordinating body and mind in the creation of meaning. The appetite for that dual action is tremendous; poetry is its concentrated form.
A few examples can begin to demonstrate variety. The interplay of physical sounds and forms of meaning, a fancy-work of pleasure and aggression, animates the final line of the following passage, from "Corinna's Going A-Maying" (p. 365) by Robert Herrick. In a custom older than Christianity, people are celebrating the season of rebirth by hanging branches in blossom all over town. This playful May-ing tradition is giddy—as is the poet, and so are the sounds of the words. Note the third-from-last line of this quotation:
Come, my Corinna, come; and, coming mark
How each field turns a street, each street a park
Made green and trimmed with trees; see how
Devotion gives each house a bough
Or branch: each porch, each door ere this,
An Ark, a tabernacle is,
Made up of whitethorn neatly enterwove,
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
Can such delights be in the street
And open fields, and we not see 't?
Come, we'll abroad; and let's obey
The proclamation made for May, And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.
"The proclamation made for May": the line has an immediately attractive lilt, an artful effect perceptible before analysis. On reflection, a reader may (or may not) note that the single sound may recurs three times with three different meanings, and in three different forms.
Hearing that kind of vocal gesture, we respond to it almost as intuitively as we respond to a lifted hand or a raised voice. Wallace Stevens in "The Snow Man" (p. 415) writes about the likelihood of hearing misery
in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
The three repetitions of "sound" and the two repetitions of "wind" communicate their emotional effect, felt before any reader counts the repetitions or notes the same consonant sound at the end of both "sound" and "wind," with that same sound repeated at the end of "land." Analysis can reﬁne and enrich understanding of the feeling and the ideas, but the fact of the actual words is primary and essential: you can hear it. The words create something like an actual voice. In an interesting psychological process, that voice is in a way the reader's and in a way the poet’s. Maybe it should be thought of as many voices, since it speaks each time anyone reads the poem—even if the reading is silent, even if the sounds are imagined only faintly. In any case, the sounds of the words and sentences and lines of "The Snow Man" make their audible gesture to anyone thinking about the possibility of hearing such a January wind without hearing misery in it, as if that wind too were a voice.