To sand a page of flat board, one abrades first metallico then brushes dolce, as the piece turns to canvas. That is a music lesson learned in the woodshop. On the guitar, metallico is played near the bridge, where the strings are tight and unbending and sound like the steel wheels of a train or fingernails on edge across a chalkboard – both sounds rarely heard these days as trains recede farther into the industrial inner city or disappear through the countryside, and chalkboards fill landfills. In the middle of nowhere one learns to listen. Dolce on guitar is sounded where the strings loosen, up the neck from the soundhole. Sweet is dolce, but the hard, long ē of sweet sounds more metallico, so soft is dolce, not sour, but balmy. Metallico, that steel rail sound, harsh and disagreeable, straightens the spine and tingles the neck hairs. For some listeners, dolce raises goosebumps; for others, metallico does the trick. Dolce is the sound of the short, soft vowel, metallico the sound of the long, hard vowel. Thus the meaning of a musical note changes with its vowel length. A bent line over the vowel illustrates the soft sound (ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, and ŭ), a straight line the hard (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū). Often, the meaning of a poem rests within its sounds, not seen in its definitions. One must listen to a poem like one listens to a piece of music. The reading question is often not what a poem means but how it feels when read or heard, what its sounds suggest. Some poems sand wood; others cut stone.
The poet is born in squalor, his first love. Some of the poet’s favorite words include seedy, shabby, seamy. These are words made with a hissing sound. In phonics, that sound is called a sibilant, and is produced by forcing the tongue toward the teeth, with the lips near closed, forcing air out like a snake whistling. But opposite words are equally valued by the poet: classy, stylish, exclusive. Even if the reader uses words without really caring about words as such much. The poet is not primarily concerned with getting a point across, and is held harmless if some point hurts its object in the bargain, even if so much the better. If an annoying sound appears to sharpen the point, there’s value added. The poet is in love with words.
But it’s easy to confuse poetry with sarcasm, satire, or irony. And the true cynicism of poetry often gives way to stoicism. This may occur when the poet realizes there is no point to anything, including his own poetry. Innuendos may still be highly valued (particularly where points may be scored), for all words have their beginning in figures of speech, which is to say, metaphor. That is precisely what an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is meant to solve. Words disallow mistake when artificial trade-offs are refused. But language is no place for despots, try as they might to exert control, to establish absolute authority. Who controls the movement of words over space and time?
Words are all substitutes. No one can claim dominion. One is as good as another. Language is democratic. And that is why the poet is married to shame, his own mother, at once virgin and harlot (that is to say, vagabond, a beggar for words). In a truly democratic society, where everyone is equal and all words hold common sway, and competition without compromise is useless, it may begin to appear the only way to have a-leg-up-on is to attempt to subject another to shame. But shame has never worked as a measure of control. And that is why poetry can be so hard to get, and why hard times come so often to poets.
The poet stands accused of nothing and nonsense. His love of words and sound and color is scorned and mocked. He is the scapegoat for confusion.
“– Is it so exaltated, eximious, extraoldanddairy and excelssiorising?
– Amengst menlike trees walking or trees like angels weeping nobirdy aviar soar anywing to eagle it!” (Finnegans Wake, 505).
Here Joyce takes a common, neutral cliché, defrocked by virtue of its clichéd repetition (nobody ever saw anything to equal it), and gives it wings so it can take off again, renewed, refreshed. “Poetry is the foundation of writing,” Beckett says. “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical” (Exagmination, 11).
Just so, Thoreau, a monk amongst trees, delights in the poetry found in sounds and tries to locate the sounds in human language, and we see him building the foundation for his own writing. An example of this is found in the “Sounds” chapter of Walden.
Thoreau has heard a hooting owl, to him a “melancholy sound,” and tries to imitate the owl’s sound: “I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it.” And in the passage, he repeats the gl letters so that the reader, if reading for sounds, must hear his meaning: “gurgling melodiousness…,” “gelatinous mildewy stage….” “It reminded me of ghouls…howlings” (118), this last, the gl inverted. And we thus find Thoreau a polyglot at work, in at least two languages, the language of nature and the language of the human, and the combination of the two might be what Joyce meant, repeating Thoreau’s gl, by “polygluttural,” the mouth flooded with the sounds of nature.