On Tone

Have you ever wondered how many ways there are of saying Oh…  The following poem give us an exquisite lesson on the subtleties of tone.


As if she were to bump her shin in the night
and utter a small, audible oh,
the doctor says, “Oh,”
as in:  things don’t look good, or
the baby that’s growing
there inside
is no longer the baby
there, growing.  Like Whitman’s O,
O gossamer thread, O filament, filament, filament….
Or the Oh that comes into a room
after the wind has filled the curtains
and emptied them again.  Just
Oh.  What causes it?  Causes
what is, not to be?  Whichever O
in theology you prefer, the same way
“Sweetheart, I love the sex
but I don’t love you”: equals:  Oh.
Or maybe the Oh in Oh what the hell—
it’s nothing dramatic,
not the Oh of a funeral
but of a year later
when you simply look up from your work
and remember that she’s gone….Oh,
like omission.  It’s nothing
I can put my finger on, nothing
that can be grieved for or raged against—
to miscarry, to put the lame collie down,
and how many years now
since your friend passed away?  So
I lose my wallet or the tip
of my index finger. With everyone else,
I’m standing on this continuum
of fairly average losses, all
supportable, shrewd blows,
O’s, zeros, noughts.  An absence
of something so profound
it bears down on the soul,
                        as if I were to take some nails
                        and hammer them into the water—
                        just small nails,
                        driven deeply. 

                                       from Wind Somewhere, and Shade by Kate Knapp Johnson
                                       permission to reprint, Miami University Press and The Sun

Oh.  It is hardly a word, more a tone.  Each time it appears, we don’t so much read it as hear it sound within us.  Oh.  With its halo of silence.  Johnson takes us through a range of intonations, covering a range of losses, each profoundly unique even as they converge.  The beauty is in the precision; it is what gives those small nails their painfully sharp points.  I’m reminded that one of the tasks of writers is to instruct us how to read what they write, never to leave it neutral or indeterminate.

Tone can seem secondary, even dispensable, but for fellow poet Tim Seibles, it is fundamental.  He says that before he can start a poem, he must first establish its tone.  The tone precedes the words; it dictates them.

Finding the tone is really a way of rooting oneself in the essential emotion.  After all, tone is vibration, the voice shaped by the body and the emotions it contains.  I’ll never forget the instruction I got in a theater improv class:  we were advised to connect, before we stepped out onto the stage, with a specific state of mind or emotion so that, from the first instant, our words and movements would have a clear source; they’d have an impetus, like water rising from a spring.  The alternative is to step onto the stage as a blank and flounder…  I know what that felt like!

It can be useful, before you enter a poem or scene to hover in the wings.  I love that moment before a choir bursts into song, when the director sounds a tone into the silence, that moment of listening and attunement.  When we take a moment to tune in, our character or persona, instead of appearing as something amorphous that only gradually finds its shape, will be fully present from the first note; the very first utterance will be vibrant with life, even it’s hardly a word but more a sound, a zero, a word as simple as “oh.”

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