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This article is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

August Kleinzahler and the 'Music' of American Poetry Peter Campion

These days when American critics compliment a poet on his or her 'music', what they often implicitly mean is 'I like how it sounds, and I'm not sure why.' Obviously this won't do. The critic who writes with this 'take it or leave it' tone deprives his or her reader of the most crucial knowledge about the poet in question. Specific sounds are after all, the poet's media. Most disappointingly, this neglect rarely serves the critic's discussion of 'larger issues'. For what raises such issues in the first place if not prosody? Analysis of the sound of poems seems particularly necessary to American poetry, When Whitman heard America singing, what he heard were 'varied carols'. Since American poetry has only become more varied in the last century, the need to examine what 'music' means to a given poet, and how it suggests his or her big concerns, has only grown more urgent.

Admittedly, critics do have their reasons for avoiding the subject. Even earnest neophytes get impatient with page after page hatch marks used to illustrate metre. But while I think such annotation can be useful, it is not the only way to approach the issue. Music also occurs in poems when a poet establishes counterpoint between two idioms: when that very counterpoint conveys the ideas and feelings that the poet attempts to reproduce in the reader. One way to clarify how such music works is to read a contemporary poet with an obvious interest in the ...


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