Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Sound and Rhythm of Words: “Dancers” by Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the U. S. 2006-2007

Words matter, I repeat. The sounds of them. The pace of them in strings. “Dancers” by Donald Hall illustrates both the delightful sound and rhythms of language.


Bowing he asks her the favor;
Blushing she answers she will;
Waltzing they turn through the ballroom
Swift in their skill.

Blinder than buffers of autumn,
Deaf but to music’s delight,
They dance like the puppets of music
All through the night.

Out of the ball they come dancing
And into the marketing day,
Waltzing through ignorant traffic,
Bound to be gay.

They slacken and stoop, they are tired,
They walk in a weather of pain;
Now wrinkles dig into their faces,
Harsh as the rain.

They walk by identical houses
And enter the one that they know.
They are old, and their children like houses
Stand in a row.

Hall, Donald. White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Donald Hall Selected Poems 1946-2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 12-13.

Read the poem once--quickly, silently. Now read the poem once more, this time aloud. Pause. Reflect. Read it aloud again.

Notice how the words lift and soar at the beginning. Notice how brisk the pace.

Notice how gravity seems to draw the poem back to earth, beginning with the words, “They slacken and stoop, they are tired.” The pace slows then.

How does the poet achieve this change in the weight of words and their rhythm? By choosing the best, most appropriate words and by ordering them in the best, most appropriate ways. No other answer will serve for the poet keeps steady the syllable count throughout the poem. Each of the first three lines in each quatrain averages 8 syllables in an iambic pattern. The last line of each quatrain is spondaic.

So the tones of discovery and coming together in lines 1-12 must be attributable to the words themselves. They are alliterative, a rhetorical device by which words speak to words as do Bowing, Blushing, ballroom, Blinder, and buffers or Deaf, delight, dance, and dancing. The initial letter repeated emphasizes the words, giving them extra significance in our minds as we read them, through our voice as we speak them.

The alliterative words also bounce and tumble because they are short-stopped consonant sounds. Both B and D are abrupt whereas slacken and stoop from line 13 hisses and stretches. There is nothing brisk about them. They are words of burden, requiring us to read them and speak them with a slower pace. Adding slacken and stoop to the abundant th sounds in lines 13-20 echoes the heavy weight of tired steps taken by two who’ve exchanged the dance floor for the market and children.

The juxtaposition of words enhances the effect. The dancers were once swift (4), but they now walk in a weather of pain (14) or stand (20). Their faces were once pleading as he asks her the favor (1) and she, blushing (2), answers “yes.” Now their faces are wrinkled (15), harsh (16), old (20).

Words matter. Their placement matters. Their juxtaposition matters. Poetry is simply diction well placed.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Dancers” at least three times, once silently and twice aloud. Then read the post about “Dancers” by Donald Hall. Finally, read “Dancers” again, this time with a love for the words and their order.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a passage from your own writing that can be transformed into music by choosing other words and reordering the whole.