Another key to the making and enjoyment of a good poem is the element of tone. The concept of tone is somewhat difficult to define but it can be thought of as the attitude of the poet (or the speaker of the poem) toward the poem or its subject matter- even toward the audience of the poem. The tone of the poem can carry loads of hidden meaning (remember your mother saying to you, I don’t like the tone of your voice?) or can itself be what the poem is ‘about.’ The tone can be laid out or amplified by the language the poet uses, the imagery, the meter, and the diction.
One of my favorite examples of how effectively tone can be used to carry the weight of a poem is Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays: (to hear Robert Hayden movingly read this poem, click here.)
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
This is a poem of reticence, a cold, angry place but what makes it so memorable is that it is also a place of reverence for the poet’s father and regret for the poet’s self-centeredness and lack of insight. The first stanza is full of hard consonant sounds (especially ‘k’ : blueblack cold, cracked hands that ached, banked fires) that sets the reader down in a cold, angry, relentlessly blue-collar place that slowly begins to warm in both temperature and language though the father, whose simple yet profound actions on behalf of the poet elevate him to a lofty position, remains largely unreachable. One can almost feel Hayden’s aching remorse in those last two lines, the repetition of the first half of his question emphasizing the obvious, unspoken answer.
Another favorite is Jack Gilbert’s Michiko Dead which details how the poet has dealt with the death of his wife. It’s tone is amazingly devoid of any hint of sorrow but is quite matter-of-factual about how one deals with tremendous grief. It is that very understated, detail-laden tone that gives the poem its lasting power (Notice too how the appearance of the poem on the page mimics the very box he describes carrying!):
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
Tone does not need to be one-dimensional. It can also shift, sometimes abruptly, which can add to the enjoyment of the poem. A good example of this is in Richard Wilbur’s A Barred Owl:
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
The first stanza delightfully describes the calming of a small child who has been frightened by the sound of an owl. It is very domestic and calming in its tone but this tone abruptly shifts in the poem’s second stanza wherein the poet revisits the gruesome truth behind the parent’s/poet’s soothing words. The abruptness of the change lends a sinister air to the obscuring power of words.
The tone of a poem is an element of the poem’s presentation that can often be felt viscerally and requires no special degree in Poetics and Prosody to appreciate. Try reading the next poem you read (and I hope that it will be soon) with a little less trepidation, secure in the knowledge that by listening and feeling for the poem’s tone, you are ‘getting’ a good deal of what the poem is likely ‘about.’