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  • LIsa Madsen Rubilar

On Vowels and Cows

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Here’s the final installment about my experience at The High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction last week. The third class I attended was taught by Tom Lombardo, editor of the Press 53 imprint, Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections. He has published two collections of his own poetry: What Bends Us Blue (WordTech, 2013) and The Name of This Game (Kattywompus Press, 2014).

I was intrigued by the title of Lombardo’s poetry seminar: “Energy in the Vowels.” Clearly, this would be a class about craft. While I like the idea that great poets are struck by lightning bolts from the muse, I like even more knowing that just about anyone can learn the craft of writing poetry. (Of course, lightning bolts do occasionally knock a diligent poet upside the head.)

Tom Lombardo’s class was exactly what I’d hoped, and more. I knew the impact of sound in poetry. I knew all about rhyme, slant rhyme, and the use of poetic techniques to speed up or slow down the voice. But I had never heard anyone discuss the "acoustic energy" of vowels in quite this way. Lombardo developed his seminar from a chart he found in the fourth edition of the book Western Wind, edited by Nims and Mason. In short, the English language has fifteen vowel sounds, each with a different level of energy, or frequency. On the lowest end of the spectrum is the oo sound, as in boo. On the highest end is ee, as in beet. The vowels on both ends of the spectrum take longer to say, and have a greater impact, than more common mid-range short vowels. High frequency vowels elicit tension, suspense, excitement, vivacity. Low frequency vowels elicit awe, power, gloom, foreboding, slow-burning anger. Think of music, and the effect of high notes versus low notes in a composition. If everything is played at or near middle C, a composition would be Boring with a capital B.

As we analyzed a number of poems, it became apparent just how true this analysis is. Read Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” paying attention to the long vowel sounds and their effects. Fascinating. And it’s something I can put into immediate practice the next time I sit down to write a poem.

I can’t leave the High Road Festival without commenting on the last readings of the event. David Jauss read two short stories, both profoundly moving explorations of how death enters life. Since I already own Jauss's story collections, I got Nice People for my mother, who is the reason I read.

Featured poet, Sean Sexton, also read a number of his “cowboy poems” at the end of the day. I went straight out and bought his collection, May Darkness Restore. I asked him to write a note inside for my father, who happens to be a fellow cattle-man with a literary heart.

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