Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson. We consider how reading a poem aloud — deciding which syllables to stress, and when to pause — can express ideas the poem suggests. We take a very close look at phonetics , and discuss how the study of linguistics informs Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s reading of May Swenson’s work. Thank you for joining us!
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” by May Swenson:
Jessica Hudgins: OK so obviously the first thing I have to ask in our conversation about these poems is sound – how long did it take you to record them? In “Question,” for example, there are some lines that you stress exactly as I expected you to, “How will it be/to lie in the sky,” and others, “bright dog is dead,” surprised me. Were there any lines that, while you were recording them for us, you had to stop and think about?
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer: Thank you for starting with sound! Warning: if you aren’t much interested in meter and sound, perhaps skip to the next question, because I am about to geek out with great enthusiasm.
So much of what draws me to May Swenson’s work is her musicality, her rhythmic play, her pleasure in the way lines chime. Both “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” are poems I memorized long ago (like two decades ago?), in part because they move me, and in part because in learning them by heart, I’ve been able to challenge and deepen my understanding of Swenson’s poetry.
I should mention, however, that I read both poems on the page when I recorded them for you, in case I’d taken liberties with Swenson’s language over the years (which, it turns out, I had). I recorded each poem two times.
With “Question,” the poem literally gallops. It’s based on two-beat lines, often iambic. However, I choose to recite it as if some of the lines are a spondee followed by an iamb. This basically crams three beats into a two-beat line, perhaps like the way some of us try to cram more “beats” of life into the limited time we’re given. Check out this first stanza:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
I suppose the first line could be a trochee and an iamb, though that would have less of a charge. And I suppose you could read the third line as two iambs, but that would produce such a sing song effect, and I intuit Swenson wants to evoke a wild ride, a quickening, instead of a predictable Hallmark ditty. The poem is driven, driven with question, driven by mystery, driven with curiosity, and I love the way her metrics strengthen this drive. The poem’s pulse is our pulse, both in its insistence and in its subtleties.
I love, too, that she ends the stanza with an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). So that the stress of the word “fallen” falls off at the end of the line. This mirroring of sound and meaning thrills me. I don’t just hear the fallenness, I feel it physically.
And then, once the two-beat pattern is established in the first two stanzas, Swenson breaks the iambic tendencies in stanza three, adding even more syllables to the lines in a sprung-rhythm way, allowing more movement inside the imposed form.
But now let’s consider these lines:
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
You noted in your question how I read the last line of this stanza as four separate beats, five really, including “good” from the line before. Well, it’s a line about death, a literal stopping of the gallop of life. And it seems to me that by giving each single-syllabic word an emphasis, Swenson is, in effect, hammering nails into a coffin. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. It’s allowing the silence between the sounds to come to prominence, a preface to the eternal silence that follows that last word, “dead.” By giving each word its own beat, the poem aurally brings home the finality of that line.
Also curious to me: the only question mark in the poem is at the end. The poem thrusts through where any punctuation might try to tame it. As if question is the new statement. When that question mark finally arrives at the end, we can paradoxically rest there in its rising uncertainty.
As for recording “Four-Word Lines:” this poem is the most haunting, surprising erotic poem I know. Though it is startlingly graphic inside its bee/flower metaphor (“I’d let you wade/ in me and seize/ … a sweet/ glistening at my core), it is delightful and playful and even a bit goofy with its insistence of all those sibilants, voiced and unvoiced, creating an audible swarming of bees. Swenson even gives us the odd plural possessive word “bees’,” which to me invites a buzz-heavy doubling of the “z.” Oh the ecstasy humming in the air! This poem makes me simultaneously blush-ish and breathless and foolish.
Once, while walking through a modern art museum, I came to a large blue bowl on the wall that created an echo effect, so I recited the poem into the bowl—the resonance of all those zzzzz’s was deliriously hypnotic.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson:
JH: In “Question” May Swenson approaches metaphor in a couple different ways. In the first stanza she uses direct address to compare the poet’s body to a house, while in the third stanza she refers to the body by name to introduce a metaphor of the body as a dog. In “Four-Word Lines” Swenson is more focused on repetition and sound. Say a little about why you chose these poems, and about Swenson’s influence on your work.
RWT: Swenson’s use of metaphor is my other most favorite part of her work. In “Question,” she leaps between body as house, horse and hound. Pleasing how she’s chosen three five-letter words that begin with h. Random, but not random. As house, the body literally contains us, “hides” us, keeps us safe, though eventually it will “fall.” As horse, our “mount,” it helps us “ride” and move through the world. As hound, it is our soul’s companion, it “hunts” our food, it sniffs out “danger or treasure.”
She interchanges the metaphors as the poem speeds along, not handling them one at a time, but all at once, so very true to the experience of having a body. And also, as you note, the speaker seems to be both in the body and also witness to the body. She is, at the same time, whatever it is that will die and whatever it is that will live on.
I often use this poem in workshops about the body. It is easy to pick almost any three nouns and explore them metaphorically. “Body my slug, my sloth, my soil.” Or “Body my wall, my woods, my wine.” And it is easy, in a way, to imitate her form here, basically a litany of questions.
It is not easy, however, to do what Swenson has done, which is to create a masterful envisioning of the transition from life to death. After the word “dead,” the speaker takes us to the beyond imaginable realm of body-less-ness, offering us only questions, which is the only real answer available to most of us.
I love that pun in the third-to-the-last line, “wind for an eye.” Though the eye still might see, the “I” is unseen, becomes wind, becomes spirit, becomes invisible, powerful and still somehow animate. With its puns and rhymes, this poem is a playground, despite its serious content.
We can find Swenson punning again in the title of “Four-Word Lines.” It is, of course, a nod to the poem’s self-imposed form. The poem is also forward in its sexual thrust. And as the first poem in “The Love Poems of May Swenson,” I think some editor was having fun by making the poem, in effect, the book’s foreword.
Here’s something else I love about Swenson’s writing—she creates simple forms, in this case four-word lines, and then uses this small limitation as something to push against and fuel creativity. Here, she charges the poem with alliteration and assonance. The similarities of sound resonate within single lines, but also reach into the next lines, creating a complex of connections beneath all that constant buzzing. It’s like the two lovers in the poem managing to connect despite the overriding “swarm of other eyes.” Let’s take a look at the inner assonances/alliterations in the first five lines:
Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a flower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over
In line one, we have the /r/ in “your/are,” which carries through in line three with “flower” line four with “brown” and “power” and line five with “breeze” and “over.” In line two, “feel like a flower,” has such strong interplay between the /f/ and /l/, and then the /ow/ sound of line three with “flower” is pulled into line four with “brown” and “power.” There’s the vocalic rhyme of “bees” in line two with “feel” in line three and “breeze” in line five … there’s more, but you get the idea. It’s splendidly woven!
Many years ago, I wrote out the poem in the phonetic alphabet so I could better see the patterns. What thrilled me then, and thrills me still, is the way Swenson seems to let sounds lead her through the poem, allowing her to arrive in unexpected places.
In my own practice, one major inspiration I take from her poems is to let myself be led by rhythm and rhyme in playful, insistent, unpredictable ways. After years of practicing this approach, I still appreciate how sound helps lead me into surprise and revelation/anti-revelation.
By the way, I earned my master’s degree in English language and linguistics because I wanted to understand how phonetics and syntax could inform poems. Swenson, Hopkins, Cummings—these were some of the poets who inspired me to explore this way.
JH: The verbs in “Question” are: do, sleep, ride, hunt, go, know, lie, hide. These are interesting to me, especially the last. No longer having a body should make hiding easy, but we get a sense of what Swenson means. I think I hear you gesturing toward this paradox in your recording. Why would Swenson ask where she’ll sleep after she’s dead? I don’t exactly mean that, but I’m curious how you might answer the question.
RWT: Right … what a curious ending. I have puzzled around this for years. Here’s where I land with it now. I think the speaker is suggesting that the I is the most essential part of us. It is not the body. It is, perhaps, the soul, what animates the body. And, to some extent, the I “hides” in the body. And then, when the body is dead, the I is exposed. The “shift” in the penultimate line is not only a garment, it’s the transformation from body and soul to simply soul.
This poem often makes me think of the Ramana Maharshi quote, “The reason to ask ‘Who am I?’ is not to arrive at an answer, but to dissolve the questioner.” And here, the questioner is still not quite dissolved at the poem’s end. How can it imagine what happens after its own dissolution?
I’m curious what you think about why she asks where the I will hide when the body is dead.
JH: These poems are so disarming. Their tone could be described as innocent, but the speaker is knowledgeable and calm in a way that makes us rethink that as we read on. What do you make of their titles?
RWT: I spoke already about the multiple puns in “Four-Word Lines.” I am embarrassed to say it was years before I found them, but I was so delighted when I did!
As for “Question,” here she rolls many questions into one. It seems to me there is some suggestion that all questions are really parts of the same ultimate question, “Who am I?” Just as all poems are, in some way, trying to answer that one question, though perhaps in a more plural sense, “Who are we? What are we doing here?”
As you say, there’s an up-front innocence that can make the poems feel quite simple. On the surface, “Four-Word Lines” is a modest story of bee meets flower. But there’s daring and pluck in the lines as they limn desire.
I also think that part of the reason the poems are ultimately disarming, as you say, is because they don’t include moral judgement. They don’t tell us how to feel. Swenson’s writing style is observational, terse, permissive. One poem takes us out of the body. The other leads us more intimately into the body. And after reading and re-reading, these poems continue to open, like the “flower breathing bare,” and we see just how richly crafted they are, how they allow us to wade in layers of both meaning and form.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer lives in Placerville, Colorado, on the banks of the San Miguel River. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate and as Western Slope Poet Laureate. She teaches poetry for 12-step recovery programs, hospice, mindfulness retreats, women’s retreats, teachers and more. An avid trail runner and Nordic skier, she believes in the power of practice and has been writing a poem a day since 2006. She has 11 collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in O Magazine and on A Prairie Home Companion. Her most recent collection, Naked for Tea, was a finalist for the Able Music Book Award. One-word mantra: Adjust. www.wordwoman.com
May Swenson (1913-1989) wrote several books of poetry, including A Cage of Spines, Iconographs, and More Poems to Solve. Swenson received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.