The Sounds of Visual Orchestration: An Exploration of Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer and Sarah Morgan’s Animal Ballistics


Photograph by John Carrel

by Heather Lang

In January of 2014, Spencer Bailey, Executive Editor for The New York Times Magazine, interviewed Richard Blanco on the matter of “How to Appreciate a Poem.” The American Poet responded:

Read it out loud. When you read a poem aloud, something amazing happens. It becomes a part of your physiology. Your body becomes actually involved in understanding and responding to it. You have more of a visceral reaction. (Bailey)

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, once lectured, “Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem.” Regardless of your stance, perhaps I may offer up a couple of poets recognized for their imagism—a quality which can be greatly appreciated within the silence of one’s own mind—who also demonstrate a masterful attention to the music, or sound, of the poem: Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer and Sarah Morgan’s Animal Ballistics.

Poet Fiona Sampson is a former career violinist, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, overt references to music appear in her work. The first poem in Common Prayer, “Messiaen’s Piano,” demonstrates that her content is, at least at times, inspired by her knowledge of music. Messiaen was known for his compositions inspired by or replicating birdcalls. Sampson writes:

Messiaen’s piano
throws notes like handfuls of stones
to clatter
against a glass-
house God:
arrhythmic hearts (Sampson 11)

The poem translates the sounds of Messiaen’s piano on the page through the image of stone throwing. Sampson expands on her image by employing a fairly elaborate simile, which is then metaphorically equated via the colon to the sound of birds’ hearts.

Despite her background, however, the first aspect readers often notice about Sampson’s work is its rich imagism. “The Looking Glass,” the second poem, begins:

Darkness at the window
holding your reflection, (Sampson 12)

These two lines mirror each other. Not unlike looking at oneself in the mirror, or a window, and seeing a duplication of your image but reversed, “Darkness,” the word which begins the first line of the poem, is a suggestive antonym to “reflection,” the word which ends the second line. It is worth thinking more about Sampson’s choice of this slant antonym, if you will—the closest, logical image to light—for reflections do require light to exist and the image of light must be present in the reader’s mind to envision the “reflection” within the poem. Furthermore, the formatting of the first two lines is visually reflective. There is white space directly beneath “Darkness at the window” and white space directly above “holding your reflection.” Recall Borges’ claim, “If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation.” What, then, are we to do with Sampson’s visual strategies? It is obvious that Sampson has thought a lot about the poem on the page. Nevertheless, no one hearing the poem could know that the first two lines of this piece physically mirror one another in print. Perhaps, however, the music of this poem is more available to a silent reader via the piece’s lineation and white space.

Staying within this vein, the second stanza of “The Looking Glass”:

and here’s your face,
its pale
blurred at the edges (Sampson 12)

Here, no one merely listening to the poem would know that the white space before the word ‘shield’ exists. In this instance, however, the sound of the poem is more available to a silent reader through what he sees on the page, and the imagery is also enhanced for the listener through both the silent and audible music of the piece. The white space prior to the word ‘shield’ causes the reader to slow down. We must pause, even if just for a subconscious second, while our eyes move both down and over to the noun ‘shield.’ This pacing, an aspect of musicality, requires us to linger on the word ‘pale.’ This staying behind for a moment, this spending a moment more in time with this adjective, enhances the imagery of the poem regardless of one’s method of consumption: visual or aural. Furthermore, a listener is, at first, unaware of whether or not the ‘its’ is, in fact the possessive pronoun or the conjunction

If the enjambment between the second and third line did not exist, and especially if the white space heading the third line was done away with, there would be no time for the mind to wonder; it would be immediately clear that ‘pale’ is the adjective describing shield. This pause, however, allows just enough time for the subconscious mind — and the conscious mind even, in the case of a listener as opposed to a reader — to interpret the phrase as follows: “and here’s your face, / it’s pale” rather than “and here’s your face, / its pale / shield / blurred at the edges.” There is a certain direct focus placed on a predicative adjective within a phrase, such as ‘it is pale.’ The lineation and white space, a silent music of sorts, and the literal sound which results from adhering to the breath this space suggests, showcases the image, the ‘pale.’

Sampson does not begin and end with what we see nor does she simply bring sound to life via her masterful imagery. Delving further into sound, recall the first two lines of “The Looking Glass”:

Darkness at the window
holding your reflection, (Sampson 12)

Not only do the images mirror each other, but the first and second lines also contain the same amount of syllables. Both contain three trochees. For example, “Darkness” begins with the accented syllable, “Dark,” followed by the unstressed “-ness.” Similarly, “hold” in “holding” is accented while the “-ing” is unstressed. Read both lines in their entirety aloud and discover the stressed versus unstressed syllables:

Darkness at the window
holding your reflection, (Sampson 12)

The two lines are metrically identical; the syllables are as follows: stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. Music and image not only cohabitate, but the meter of the poem is this reflective image further put into sound.

Sampson sets her images in motion. In the case of the third stanza of “The Looking Glass,” this poet does so via lineation and whitespace, the way the poem appears visually on the page:

so pallor moves out from nose, cheekbones, forehead
through streamers of dark hair
into the night (Sampson 12)

The first line of this stanza is much longer than any other line on the page; it is almost as though these words are less controlled, are unraveling across the page, much like the “pallor” that “moves out from nose, cheekbones, forehead.” Much like an object appears smaller as it moves farther away, each line within this three-line stanza becomes smaller and smaller until the “pallor moves” away and “into the night.” The effects of these lines are not only visual but also aural. We are forced to spend more time listening to the first line, “so pallor moves out from nose, cheekbones, forehead,” not only because this line is the longest but due to the meter of the line as well as the punctuation. Notice the plethora of stressed syllables: so pallor moves out from nose, cheekbones, forehead.” The lack of predictable or consistent rhythm, which is already heavy due to the stressed syllables, slows the line significantly. In contrast, the next two lines contain no interruptive punctuation. They also offer a gentler, almost rhythmic quality, which allows the image to more easily slip out “into the night”:

through streamers of dark hair
into the night (Sampson 12)

Read this out loud. Also worth noticing is that, paired with the line break, the heavily stressed end of the stanza’s second line, “dark hair,” and the stress placed on the first syllable of the third line allow the listener to feel a break in rhythm reflective of the visual line break on the page.

While Sampson’s poetry is refined by her compositional ear, which was trained, in part, through her experience as a violinist, this is not the only kind of ear-training for writers; Sarah Morgan’s theatrical recitations have honed her craft. She played a key role in the rebirth of the Philadelphia Slam Poetry Team and is also a member of Vox Ferus, an organization dedicated to strengthening individuals and communities through both written and spoken word.

Sarah Morgan’s collection Animal Ballistics begins with a highly-imagistic, single-line stanza, “A black umbrella opens in my chest” (Morgan 10). Perhaps we can still imagine a time, before French Surrealism, when a claim like this might shock us, but we live in a literary moment in which the emotional and intellectual meaning of this metaphoric opening line will be readily available to most readers. In another time, we might have expected a more clearly signaled use of figuration: I felt as though a black umbrella had opened in my chest. But as D. A. Powell suggests in his essay on “The Great Figure,” such overt use of both the metaphor and the simile have fallen out of favor. He explores the distrust of simile and continues to write:

Metaphor doesn’t fair much better. Nothing is like anything else; therefore nothing is anything else. Which is not to say that comparisons aren’t made. They’re simply being made through more subtle strategies. (Powell)

Here we find Morgan enacting one of these subtler strategies. Much of the meaning of “A black umbrella opens in my chest” is conveyed through the connotations of, for example, ‘umbrella.’ The collection opens with “Train”:

A black umbrella opens in my chest.

How fast the landscape trickles by.
I’m trying to understand
what would break first if I jumped from this boxcar. (Morgan 10)

The poet’s expertise in aligning the pieces of a poem is apparent from the start. What business do an umbrella and a train have flirting with each other? Morgan bonds the two together through her diction as she describes how the “landscape trickles by.” I think we can agree that ‘trickles’ is much more commonly used to describe water, such as rain moving across a train window, than the landscape. Furthermore, even the title, “Train,” contains the word ‘rain,’ which subtly and subconsciously prepares the reader for this pairing while avoiding being heavy handed. Nevertheless, by the time we reach the fourth line, the audience cannot help but compare the speaker to the falling rain when she asks, “what would break if I jumped from this boxcar.” The piece is able to present these unusual, fresh, and effective perspectives without, well, becoming a train wreck of ineffectual randomness. These connotations, however, are not the only players blurring boundaries; musically speaking, the crescendo within the first line of “Train” might remind a reader of the precision of a carefully composed score.

In the study “Small Sounds, Big Deals: Phonetic Symbolism Effects in Pricing,” economics professors Keith and Robin Coulter write, “Some research has suggested that the phonetic aspects of a word (i.e., how it sounds) may have an impact on a semantic dimension (i.e., what that word conveys).” Consider again, “A black umbrella opens in my chest.” The sentence is front-loaded with plosives: the ‘b’ and ‘k’ sounds of ‘black,’ the ‘b’ sound of ‘umbrella,’ the ‘p’ sound of ‘open.’ Interestingly, this sonic cooperation may not only be intriguing musically but also semantically significant. These professors explain, “stops (fricatives) typically are associated with perceptions of large (small) size.” Similarly, per Coulter and Coulter, “back (front) vowel sounds typically are associated with perceptions of large (small) size.” The study suggests that these perceptions “may be the evolutionary result of humans using resonant cavity and formant dispersion (i.e., the difference between resonance frequencies, which is tied to vocal tract length) as a cue to body size.” Regardless of the reason, according to this logic, the words ‘black’ and ‘umbrella’ might be perceived as large due to their back vowels and stop consonants. The only vowel in ‘chest,’ however, is a front vowel, which could create the perceptual effect of smallness. Less simply, the ‘s’ is a fricative consonant while the ‘t’ is a stop. It seems reasonable, based upon the evidence, to conclude that the word ‘chest’ might be taken in as a crescendo of sorts, transitioning from the smallness suggested by the front vowel ‘e’ and fricative consonant ‘s’ to the larger hypothesized perceptual effect of the stop consonant ‘t.’ Maybe there is phonetic symbolism harbored within the sentence; perhaps we can literally, albeit unconsciously, hear the chest enlarge as the perceptually large ‘black umbrella’ opens within. According to Coulter and Coulter, “sound symbolism occurs automatically at a nonconscious level and has a greater effect when cognitive resources are constrained than when they are abundantly available.” Resultantly, Morgan’s imagism is accentuated by the sound of the poem.

I wonder if those who wholeheartedly subscribe to Borges statement, “If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem,” might be somewhat swayed by Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer, or if they might build an even stronger case, using Sarah Morgan’s Animal Ballistics as their foundation. Regardless, perhaps both readers and listeners can appreciate these two collections by poets recognized for their imagism, yet who also demonstrate a masterful attention to the music of the poem.

Works Cited:

Bailey, Spencer. “How To Appreciate a Poem.” The New York Times: The One-Page Magazine. 10 Jan 2014. n. pag. Web. 15 March 2014.

Coulter, Keith S. & Coulter, A. Robin. “Small Sounds, Big Deals: Phonetic Symbolism Effects in Pricing”. Chicago Journal of Consumer Research 37.2 (2010): 315-328. Web. 7 April 2013.

Holston, Bill. “Refugees In Dallas, Finding a Voice Through Poetry.” D Magazine. 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 April 2014.

Morgan, Sarah. Animal Ballistics. Nashville, Tennessee: Write Bloody Publishing. 2009. Print.

Powell, D.A. “The Great Figure: On Figurative Language.” 2007. 7 April 2013.

Sampson, Fiona. Common Prayer. Manchester, Great Britain: Carcanet Press Limited. 2007. Print.

About the Author:

Heather Lang is a professor, literary critic and poet.