Michael Dennis Browne
I can’t be “fair” to “Fern Hill.” I can’t be fair to it, just as I can’t be fair to organ music or to an old song such as “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill.”
My father, who died in 1960, was an organist, and whenever I hear the organ, he comes to mind (and heart, and soul, and gut) and I see him and remember him and long for him. And an old song such as “Richmond Hill” stirs very, very early memories from childhood (wartime England) in a tantalizing way—like a powerful dream you can’t quite remember but are haunted by long after waking.
I’m not sure how far I go back with “Fern Hill,” but probably to my early teens, when I won an elocution prize in high school for reciting it. I can’t quite remember who the teacher was who chose the poem, or who coached me, but I remember his suggesting that I could give slightly different coloring to the phrase “out of grace” since something was happening there that was counter to the generally ecstatic tone of the poem. But my memory is of piping the whole piece out in a fairly uniform tone.
And I don’t remember when it was we went up from school to London to see “Under Milk Wood” but it was certainly in the early 50s—was Thomas still alive?—and I remember falling under the spell of the words and being captivated by the characters in the little topsy-turvy town that was mad—Captain Cat, Polly Garter, Nogood Boyo, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, Organ Morgan, and the dream-like rest of them.
You have to hear “Fern Hill.” Hear it often, even. A number of poets come alive—Thomas, Hopkins, Roethke, among others—when you hear the poems physically, in real time, vibrating in the air around you. You can’t turn the page. The vowels, and all the other elements of a certain kind of poem, do their magic.
Or not. It may not be your kind of music—your kind of poem, your kind of thing—ever. If you made me listen to barbershop music, say, once a week for a year, I might well be even more unappreciative of it than I am now. For some of you, Thomas may remain “a fat little fool ranting on a cliff,” as he once called himself, and the poem be representative of exactly the sort of thing you want poems not to do. As I said in class—I won’t lose any sleep over that.
But you might want to give it a chance to enchant you. You might need to hear it, and a number of times. Listen to it once a week for a year, say, and see if you feel differently about it then than you do now.
From the very start—”Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs”—it’s almost ridiculously musical. All those connections of sound, within the lines and among the lines! It’s high density vowel music. I’m not going to list the connections of sound the way I did with a James Wright poem (“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”) which I’ll give you, but it might be rewarding if you yourself were to take a single stanza and discover how many sounds belong together, answer one another, echo and call to one another.
There’s an innate pleasure in that kind of verbal music. It’s one of the things poetry traditionally does. It’s what Donald Hall means when he talks about “the sensual body of the poem” and when he favors Mother Goose as a poet over W. H. Auden. It’s what M. L. Rosenthal means when he says of Yeats: “Early and late, he had the simple, indispensable gift of enchanting the ear.” For the lyrical poet, that ability to enchant is everything.
Someone was “complaining” in class about words such as “happy” and “lovely.” I understand the objection, but I have a thought about the use of those words. Mikhail Bhaktin talks of heteroglossia—the presence of several voices within a poem—and, in this instance, I see the use of such plain words as, just possibly, the pre-poetic child’s being allowed to speak in the poem, as it were, his simple phrases (as in today’s “cool’ or “awesome”) glimpsed in and among the flowings of high poeticisms which constitute the main speech/music of the poem.
Michael Dennis Browne taught for 39 years at the University of Minnesota. His book, The Voices, comes out this winter from Carnegie Mellon. He has also written many works for music, working principally with composer Stephen Paulus. Browne's website is michaeldennisbrowne.com.