As a child, fighting off boredom, I would say the word ‘here’ over and over again until the meaning vanished and it became pure sound. At first this phenomenon frightened me; suddenly I was in the world of infancy and its babbling syllables, a foreign place for a child who yearned for tomorrow not yesterday. Not until I read poet Donald Hall’s essay “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird” later in life was this phenomenon explained. He wrote: “…in poetry it is the deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.” This reminds me of something I overheard a young child say to her father: “Daddy, I’ve got energy in my mouth.”

Is it this return to innocence that one looks to poetry for? The pleasurable gibberish of an infant or toddler? Or does maturation and its accompanying concern for meaning get in the way? Often people (mostly students, of course) ask me what a poem means. In answer, I direct them to what poet John Ciardi believed and wrote about in his book How Does a Poem Mean? That is, one must experience the poem: walk around in it, visit it many times, notice what is happening, things like tonality, vowel sounds, consonance, rhythm, and rhyme (or lack thereof). See what’s going on. Ciardi writes: “I am more interested in ‘How’ the poem means, how it goes about being a performance of itself. An alternative title might have been ‘How to talk about a poem without actually paraphrasing.”

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