A Letter from the Chair

Dr. Mark Mossman, Chair of the English Department

Dr. Mark Mossman, Chair of the English Department

’Poetry is Sound’ or, Sound in Simpkins Hall


Mark Mossman

The great Basil Bunting often gave advice to other poets. A former conscientious objector, spy, political prisoner, journalist, music critic, and Quaker, it seems likely that Basil Bunting had a lot of advice to give. Mostly, what Bunting said to young writers was quite simple: “Compose aloud; poetry is sound.”

Poetry is sound—it is something that is meant to be composed aloud and then read aloud. It is sound, music, utterance.



This line, for example, is never to be read in silence:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

Nor these:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal

Nor these:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Nor these:

I do not mix

love with pity

nor hate with scorn

and if you would know me

look into the entrails of Uranus

where the restless oceans pound.

Poetry is sound, and writing is connected, so intimately, with the music in our heads.

And as we are a department uniquely concerned with writing and, indeed, with poetry, I believe that each year we fill Simpkins Hall with a very significant, distinct kind of sound. It is what we do. We make sound, and in our reading and in our composing, amazingly we make actual meaning through sound.

We do exactly what Auden said we would always do (both to the poems of Yeats and to the poetry of all of us):

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

This year has been a good example of what I am talking about here. With the Boiler Room Series, and with help from the University Art Gallery, these sounds have come from our students and our colleagues in the forms of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. With the Lola & Austin Case Writers Series, and our excellent Foundation Office, these sounds have come from the numerous readings made by prestigious visiting writers and critics, including Lev Grossman, Roxane Gay, Rachel Kushner, Anu Taranath, and Jan Radway.

Again, a lot of poetry and a lot of sound.

I want to conclude with a mostly apocryphal story about poetry and sound.

As one would imagine, there were numerous excessive dinner parties during the Romantic Era. At one such party, so the legend goes, a very young, very ephemeral, very awkward, but very deeply passionate John Keats recited, with gusto, a long set of lines from his long, long poem “Endymion.” He recited the lines, from memory, to one of his many idols: a much older, much taller, and a much more boring, William Wordsworth.

Not surprisingly, to Keats at least, this impromtu reading was not impressive, and so not successful.

The point here, though, is that Keats felt that he had to recite his poems aloud to Wordsworth. He did so, I think, in order to make it more meaningful. Keats did not hand the great Wordsworth the poem to read at leisure and in silence. No. He wanted Wordsworth to hear his music, right then and there. And so he recited it to him.

Keats’ poetry is still being read, aloud, in Simpkins Hall.