A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose

An Umbrella Essay

John Milbury-Steen

received a Master’s in Creative Writing from Indiana University, Bloomington, studying with Ruth Stone.

He served in the Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa and has worked as an artificial intelligence programmer in Computer Based Education at the University of Delaware.

Among his publishing credits are The Beloit Poetry Journal, Blue Unicorn, Dark Horse, The Piedmont Literary Review and Shenandoah.

—Back to Orsorum Contents/Issue Links—

by John Milbury-Steen

C onsider the two categories of sounds in a language, consonants and vowels. Which sounds are more important? Vowels, of course. Vowels are the flow of language, while consonants are perturbations in that flow. If vowels are the water in the river, the consonants are the rocks and dams. It makes sense, then, that formal verse is based on vowels. In English, formal verse is based on patterns of stress, the most important of which is iambic. Which phonemes have stress? Vowels.

I am not a linguist, but a teacher of English as a Second Language. In that role, I have spent many hours in the classroom teaching minimal pairs like ship and sheep, so I have become sensitive to other vowel qualities beyond stress. If we were looking for some organizing principle of verse to use either in place of stress or in addition to it, naturally, we would look at other vowel attributes. According to linguists, there are many to choose from. Some of them, such as the difference between tense and lax vowels, are not very intuitive to me. However, one difference stands out as a useful one: front vowels vs. back vowels. I can hear the difference without effort, just as I hear the difference between weak and strong stress.

The front vowels, just like it says, are articulated in the front of the mouth. These are the vowels of beat, bite, bait, bit, bet and bat. The back vowels are the vowels of boor, bard, bough, bought, boot, book and boat. However, there are also central vowels, the vowels of Bert, but and bot. This presents a problem right away because prosody wants either/or situations. Just as verse simplifies the four stress levels of English into two (strong and weak) in order to make a foot, we need to simplify our three vowel categories into two. Solution: lump the central vowels and the back vowels together. Henceforth, when I refer to “back vowels,” I am including the central ones.

I did not want to try to create a new foot based on progression from front to back vowels, or from back to front. That way lay madness. I did, however, see that there is a progression from front to back vowels that gives you a satisfying cadence in English. The breakthrough came from a children’s story: “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In it, the giant says, “Fee, fi, fo, fum.” He does not say, “Fum, fo, fi, fee.” The vowels in what he says shift from front to back. I also found a similar pattern in expressions like tick-tock and ding-dong. The latter two were very persuasive. They convinced me that I had found what I call “the falling pattern” in English: a progression from front to back. I don’t know about your clock, but the ticks of my clock are all the same, and yet my ear so strongly wants to create a difference in order to organize them into pairs that I have to make an effort to hear them as they are: identical. The same with the peals of a bell. I saw, then, that I could keep an iambic pattern and in each line the stressed vowels could shift from front to back. In this way I could create falling cadence that would confer a sense of completion on each line.

I began reading poetry with special attention to vowel registers and soon found that I did not own the patent: that other poets had invented this technique, but had, perhaps, been using it instinctively without elaborating it theoretically. Take this example, from Richard Wilbur.


I read how Quixote in his random ride Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide

Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever he might turn.
His head was light with pride, his horse’s shoes

Were heavy, and he headed for the barn.

The poem begins in a rising cadence (back to front vowels) in lines 1 and 3. However, the rest of the lines end on back vowels, and in the last two lines, the vowel organization is strict:

Line Front Part Back Part
6 His head was light with pride, his horse’s shoes
7 Were heavy and he headed for the barn.

I find this highly satisfying because the vowel registers reinforce the contrast between Quixote and his horse. Quixote is full of spontaneous idealism, but his horse, like a repressed form of disillusionment within himself, is heavy and gives up. The falling vowel register often has this implied trope: of falling and the fall, of decline and entropy, a drag, a downward pull. Words with front vowels tend to sound happy and light; those with back vowels often sound dark. In some contexts, like the giant’s speech, the falling cadence sounds pleasant with a completed roundness to it; but in other contexts, like this one, it undercuts. Often it has a sort of subconscious pessimism about it.

In my invention, “Vocalic Verse,” the fall of the vowels gets legislated to create something like a rhetorical law of gravity. Each line begins with a region of front vowels and ends with a region of back vowels. Only the stressed vowels count. This is a line prosody: it defines the sound of a line. I always use iambic pentameter lines, but I suppose you could use it in free verse. Vocalic verse doesn’t define a stanza either. Personally, I use it in combination with four-line stanzas rhyming on the last line, but this is not an intrinsic part of vocalic verse. Ironically, in spite of this meticulous theoretical framework, most readers will never be aware they are reading a specialized form of verse. The effects will be subliminal.

An obvious variation is to make some lines rising instead of falling, as Wilbur did: that is, the stressed vowels could proceed from back to front in some lines. If you had a rationale for deciding which lines are rising and which are falling, as Wilbur did, you could create consistent tension in the poem. If you got so good at it that you did it without thinking, you might really have something!

Another variation is to make the falling cadence formal and structural, not semantic. After all, does iambic pentameter have any implied meaning? (A devil’s advocate might argue that it does: that it implies an over-easy, artificial conquest of confusion. I do not share that view.) In this view of vowel registers, the cadence just reinforces the structure, not the argument. In quatrains rhyming abab, if you alternated rising and falling lines (you would want the b line to be falling), you could maximize the sense of alternation. In quatrains I see this done often.

Here is one of my vocalic verse poems as an example. It is about my grandfather, whose name, appropriately, was Josh.

Josh on the Phone

When I was born, my father was at war,
and that began the distance. While my mom
labored at me, I had my mother’s father
in place of father pacing the waiting room.

He was full of blarney. Blarney the Clown
eyed the stage and podium pay phone
and had an inspiration, that he would
pray, cajole the gods of Washington

to get my father leave to see his son,
so he performed a calling up the rungs
of state and federal power that he schmoozed
with such a charming and disarming tongue

that he was pocketing the numbered stars
of generals and had drawn a goodly crowd
of dads-to-be and nurses, who poured forth
dimes of minutes, as they all were wowed.

"It isn't every day one has a son,"
he might say or presciently note
that bonding with a son might do more good
than having the father marching off his butt.

Bets were placed on how high he might go,
playing him off track from Pimlico
(this was Baltimore) before he hit
a bureaucratic wall. I’m down. I’ve brought

my dime to him to keep him on the phone.
I need his voice. I want him to effuse!
I need to be made over. Others have brought
different dimes. They want to prolong amusement.

Of course, if you are going to use vowels this way, you have to decide how strict you are going to be. In this poem, the use of front and back vowels is pretty strict. The most irregular line is “(this was Baltimore) before he hit” which ends on a front vowel. Oh well. I am not going to be a vowel slave. However, I admit that I am obsessive about the form of each line. I am a computer programmer as well as an ESL teacher, so I like to make each line compile. It was not easy for the first few years of my apprenticeship to this form, but now the shift in vowel register actually helps me write more fluently. I am not enslaved. This form has freed me. It delights me. It helps me write playfully in a medium having pessimistic implications.