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Mimi Khalvati on vowel music and editing with form


Our last workshop of the year with Mimi Khalvati on Saturday, and the subjects of vowel sounds and form were big topics. Here’s an extract from my notes, on the things that struck home for me this month.

Vowel music – paying attention to the vowel sounds of words (NB not how the sounds are written – it can’t be done by sight.)

Sometimes a chain of sounds emerges and this can reveal something about the emotional feel of it. Listen to the sound, what does it tell you? For example – the UH of but, come, cup etc can have an up-in-the-air feeling, a feeling of wonder, whereas the short I sounds of pin, trip, kin, can sound excitable, light. Think of the longer vowel sounds and diphthongs of peel, need, close, bows, low, ground – in being longer they are more settled, grounded, slowing down.

Working with vowel sounds is a good critical tool – sometimes you can hit on the right sound but it’s the wrong word. This is a common problem – you can’t let the word go, because you know there’s something right about it, but you don’t know why it still seems wrong. Lots of things sound similar, you have to work through other words with the same sound.

Still thinking about sounds – if you use a foreign name or word, should you worry about people not reading it with the right pronunciation, and thereby spoiling their ‘hearing’ of the poem? Mimi says you should trust a ‘good reader’ to make the right call and go with it. ‘Don’t write for bad readers!’

Form – when the form doesn’t quite work you must wonder about it. Form is an unforgiving editing tool. Go through and look where you’ve put line breaks, enjambments, stanza length, anything that sticks out (eg a strong, unintentional rhyming couplet in the middle of free verse) and try playing with the form, stanza and line length etc.
On the other hand, don’t force your poem into a specific form if it doesn’t quite fit, eg by ‘padding’ in order for the metre to be correct. Trust in the direction the poem is going and don’t be wedded to an idea if the language suggests otherwise.

Published inPoet's TipsWorkshopping

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Robin Houghton 2024