Episode 35

Ə [Schwa]

by Paul Blake

 

Paul Blake reads ‘ə [Schwa]’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

A Massacre of Hummingbirds by Paul Blake 

A Massacre of Hummingbirds book cover

Available from:

A Massacre of Hummingbirds is available from:

The publisher: Stonewood Press

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK 

 

Ə [Schwa]

by Paul Blake

Here is its sign – Ə, an e doing handstands,
because although we say it with every breath
it does not have a letter in my language.

The sound of hesitation, uncertain, diffident,
creeping between the consonants like a cat
weaving between legs. Not the rough

breathing of ’ain, harsh as sand-laced wind,
nor the brisk closing of gates in a glottal stop.
Schwa, uh, er, huh. The thing it knows

is quietly moving on, its raison-d’être’s helping
things to flow. So we do: breathe, and carry on
as we must, to get where we’re going.

Uh, er, huh. Simple Ə. And its sign, turned e,
might not seem right, too much the show-off
for this little sound, this sigh we make,

the body’s opening to the wide world of air.
Yet surely something should do handstands,
at the sweetness of breath, that necessary

lovely thing, so rarely noticed when we
are at our ease, when every breath flows
freely. Something that remembers soul –

that soul is also a breath infusing us, a wind,
ruah, that blows through the towns of flesh.
Ruah, whose root also means perfume.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Paul, where did this poem come from?

Paul: Well, I seem to remember being told actually that when authors do book signings, that’s the second most hated question. ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ The first, most hated, of course, being, ‘I’ve written this manuscript, and will you read it for me?’ But, in fact I think a little unusually, this has a relatively clear genesis for me. And basically, I’ve always been fascinated by linguistics. Now, I have to stress, I am not a professional linguist. I have an educated layman’s interest in linguistics, but, it seems to me it’s the equivalent for poets of reading the engineer’s manual on your car. It’s about all the stuff that’s happening under the bonnet.

Mark: Yes. Yes, that’s very true.

Paul: So, linguistics fascinates me. And comparative linguistics is fascinating. The way… I think this is what really fascinates me when I started to learn other languages and I realized that, well, they don’t do it the same way we do. That’s fascinating. There’s more than one way to achieve that effect. So, I have, I’ll say, a lifelong interest in linguistics. And of course, part of linguistics is phonology, the study of sounds.

So, I have a very bad habit of occasionally clicking on Wikipedia articles on particular IPA symbols, IPA being the International Phonetic Alphabet that’s used to represent all these different sounds. And reading about all these peculiar sounds. And one of the sounds which we have in virtually, I think virtually all languages have a version of this is this schwa. And schwa is what they call, I think, a central, mid-unstressed vowel sound, something like that anyway. And it’s just a very neutral… It’s that neutral sound that we get in English when we’re not stressing anything like the A in about. And what first struck me about it was what a wonderful word that is, schwa. I mean, it’s so un-English actually.

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: And in fact, it’s partly because English has this wonderful habit of grabbing words from other languages. And so we get these fascinating little nuggets appearing in English that don’t really look or sound very English. And I believe that, in fact, a modern Hebrew speaker would pronounce it ‘shva’ because it’s a Hebrew word in origin. And Hebrew actually has a sign, not a letter because, of course, in Hebrew they only write consonants. Hebrew has little signs that go underneath the consonants if you’re writing it in full. And one of these is called shva and it represents this ‘uh’ sound. And the reason that we have acquired this is via German, because all the best linguists in the 19th century were Germans.

Mark: Of course.

Paul: And quite a lot of them were also Jewish. And so a German linguist was studying…well, was writing about the unstressed E in Germany. If you have an E at the end of a word in German, it is this ‘uh’ sound.

Mark: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Paul: And so they needed a name for it, and they called it… They borrowed the Hebrew word, shva. Of course, in German, the w would be pronounced like a v. So, schva. But when we’ve imported it into English, it’s become schwa, and it’s such a nice sound. So, I was just fascinated by this sound, schwa. So, I thought, what is it that’s fascinating about it? And it’s just such a neutral sound. It’s such a shy little sound. And I kind of… It struck me that it rather fitted with a particular stereotype of Englishness, this idea of the rather hesitant, shy, polite English person. So, one of the drivers for this poem was actually a meditation on that hesitant Englishness. It’s probably not terribly apparent in the poem as it now exists, but it is there underlying it. And so, I think the poem talks about this idea of hesitancy and how it’s diffidence thing and isn’t a letter for it in English. And…

Mark: Yeah. Because that would be ostentatious, wouldn’t it?

Paul: Exactly. Exactly. And so the interesting thing is that the symbol that linguists use is this upside-down e because, as I say, it was Germans who thought of it and they wanted to show how are we going to write an e when it’s not stressed? Well, let’s write it upside down. So, that’s how we get the symbol, which is an upside-down e, a lowercase e upside down. I mean, it’s a rather curious little sign. And so this phrase came to me, ‘Is an e doing handstands?’ And that meditation on Englishness and the idea of an e doing handstands is exactly where this poem comes from, but it’s not where it ends.

Mark: No, it’s not. Well, let’s go there in a minute. I mean, this is very interesting to me because firstly thank you for clearing up the mystery of why it’s that upside-down e which had been niggling me for a while. And it was interesting… I’ve read the poem quite a few times, but it was only when you read it just now that that line, the sound of hesitation, uncertain, diffident struck me as, ‘Oh, that’s so English. That’s why we have so many schwas.’

Paul: Exactly so. Exactly so. I mean, it did seem to me, gosh, virtually every unstressed vowel in English at least in the Southern dialects devolves into a schwa. And so it’s an incredibly English sound, not only an English sound, but very much an English sound, and yet we don’t have a distinguishing letter for it, which is perhaps typical of our rather strange orthography.

Mark: Yeah. And it’s almost like it’s graying out the vowels.

Paul: Yes, exactly. That’s very much how it is I think. It hasn’t got… It loses colour. Yeah. It loses colour. I mean, we don’t have stress on it.

Mark: And again, looking at it now I’m noticing how many languages you’ve got in here. So, you’ve got the schwa, which as we’ve seen is from at least two languages, and then you’ve got the beautiful Hebrew words that I can’t pronounce.

Paul: And Arabic too.

Mark: Oh, okay. So, maybe you could gloss those for the ignorant among us, i.e. me!

Paul: Well, the عain, I mean, it is a letter in modern Hebrew, but I think if I understand correctly, they don’t make the distinction anymore in modern Hebrew between the softer breathing and the rough breathing. The Arabic still does. So, عain is down in your throat.

Mark: Wow.

Paul: And it’s called… It is technically called rough… One of the descriptions of عain sound is rough breathing. So, they talk about soft breathing and rough breathing. So, because I don’t speak Hebrew, but I do know a bit of Arabic, I had to borrow what I knew of Arabic to run into the Hebrew side of things, but we do get to Hebrew at the end with the ‘ruah’.

Mark: But before we get there, what does عain mean?

Paul: Well, عain is one of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. So, it’s the thing that looks… You may… If you look at individual Arabic letters, it looks like a three written backwards. At least it does when it’s not joined up to other things, but we won’t go there. And it’s quite a major bit of Arabic phonology that they have these throaty sounds in Arabic. And so if I say… I’m just trying to think of two words that I can contrast. ‘Abd’ and ‘habbed’, they’re two different words in Arabic because the sound is slightly different. One is down in your throat. So, yes. So, that’s where the عain comes in. It was because I was trying to contrast this idea of this very shy, neutral sound and other what you might call breath sounds, but which are much more forceful. So, you’ve got a عain and you’ve got the glottal stop, which, of course, we also have in English, particularly in London dialects, but…

Mark: Glottal stop.

Paul: Glottal stop. Yeah, exactly. So, yeah. So, it was thinking about different ways that our breath moves in and out of our throat when we speak that…

Mark: And I think that that’s something I really love about this is it just makes you aware of, because, I mean, we take language for granted so often, the way it looks, the way it sounds. And what I think you’ve done in this poem is exposed that essential strangeness that it’s a physical activity and we could be doing it differently and maybe we’ve inherited something that, we don’t even know where it’s from and yet we use it every day. And it’s literally, well, that mouthful of air, to coin a phrase, where the language is emanating from the physical action.

Paul: Yes. It’s something that fascinates me. I mean, in the pamphlet in which this poem is found, a lot of the poems talk about either the physicality of language or even the physicality of writing. These are themes that keep coming up in my poems. I think we forget the physicality of things at our peril. And it’s even something that, in my occasional work as a reviewer of poetry, one of the first things I do when I look at a poetry collection is I look at it as a book, as a physical object. Is it a nice thing to hold?

Mark: Yes.

Paul: Does it look nice? Does it feel or does it smell nice? These are all things that impact, I think, on our understanding and interpretation of poetry.

Mark: Well, certainly, in the case of A Massacre of Hummingbirds the pamphlet where this is from, it is a beautiful little object. It’s really… You’ve got a lovely weight of paper and…

Paul: Yeah. Stonewood Press did a really nice job on it.

Mark: It is. It’s a nice thing to hold in your hand and it’s nicely pocket-sized.

Paul: Indeed.

Mark: Okay. So, you said just now that you told us where the poem started, but you said it is not where it ended up. Maybe you could tell us a bit about that journey.

Paul: Yeah. As I say, I was thinking about the sounds, and then as I say about a certain aspect of Englishness and how that perhaps contrasts with other languages, really, wondering even at the back of my mind, although I don’t think you can really see it in the poem, whether, to what extent the language we speak actually shapes our behavior.

You may know this thing called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that says, that language shapes thought, but does it actually shape behavior as well? If you have a language that’s full of polite circumlocutions, does that actually affect the way you behave in public with other people? Perhaps it does. Or is it the other way around? Nobody is really in a position to say. Does it start with the cultural thing and then that affects the language or does the language affect culture? I think they’re so intertwined it’s perhaps difficult to say.

So, I started with that. And then while I was thinking about breath, it came to me that the Hebrew has this word Ruah, which means, as I understand it, a wind, but it also means spirit. And Arabic has very similar words, which come from this, as you may know, all Semitic languages work on this idea of a three-consonant route or a three-letter route from which you develop various words. So, these are breath H root in both Hebrew and Arabic is used for things to do with breath, with wind, but it’s come to mean spirit. So, I believe that in the Hebrew version of Genesis where it talks about the spirit of God resting on the waters, the word is Ruah Elohim. It’s the breath of God or the spirit.

So, you have this… This thought came to me that actually, there’s a kind of spiritual element to this, which is probably actually deeply unfashionable in modern poetry. But there is almost a religious element to this poem. And so suddenly I found myself writing about soul. Now, I have to stress, I’m not a formal believer in any religion, but we are shaped by our culture, which is, shaped by thousands of years of belief. And, suddenly, as I say, I find myself writing about soul. And yeah, that wasn’t really where I expected to end up when I started by thinking, ‘Oh, isn’t schwa a lovely word?’

Mark: And isn’t that really the big joy of writing poetry that it surprises you, that you find yourself?

Paul: It’s that discovery.

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: Yes. I think writing a poem in the best cases is a process of discovery. So, things pop out of our subconscious or wherever these ideas come from that we didn’t really expect to see. And also I think the process of writing poems often brings together things that we didn’t expect to see together.

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: And that definitely happened with this poem.

Mark: So, what was that process like for you? I mean, what was the first draft like and then what was the process you went through to get to the finished form? And I guess I’m curious about where the surprise popped up.

Paul: I think editing… I think it’s sort of 70% at least of writing a poem is editing.

Mark: Yes.

Paul: And I do think that the process varies for different people. I don’t think it is identical for all of us. It seems to me from what I’ve heard just talking to other poets is that there are poets who are samurai and they come along with their katanas and they’ll slice great bloody chunks off the original shapeless mass until they get down to something really small and beautiful and concentrated.

But I think my editing… I’m more of a mouse when it comes to editing. I nibble everything. Usually, I nibble at things in the dark. So, very often, a phrase comes to me or a few lines come to me often when I’m walking or sometimes when I’ve just gone to bed, actually, that’s another time when ideas come to me, and I tend to just… Once upon a time I used to write them down in a notebook, but then I was always losing the notebooks. So, these days I’m afraid that they go onto my iPhone in the Notes app which is probably not a very good way of thinking. And then I’ll come back to them and I’ll start putting them into a word processor document.

And again, I used to write these things out longhand. And I think probably it’s a better way, really, because there’s always a risk when you put things into a Word processor document and they look finished before they are. But I think I’ve learned not to trust that first impression. So, what I tend to do is put a massive stuff. I’ll start with a couple of lines that have really caught my attention and I’ll put ‘em down and I’ll just expand and run on and see where my thoughts take me. And usually, it’s fairly shapeless at first. And then as I say, I’ll start nibbling.

So, I’ll start moving lines around, moving words around, breaking things up, seeing does that line need to be in here at all? And I’ll do a little bit and then I’ll stop and I’ll put it away and then I’ll come back to it maybe a few days later, maybe a week later, even sometimes much longer than that. It often takes me quite a long time to achieve the finished form of a poem. And I think interestingly, in this case, I went back and looked because I knew you were going to ask. And I looked at the old draft. So, I always try when I change things to save it as a new draft so I can see what I’ve done to it, how it’s evolving.

And interestingly, this one took me about a month, which is quite short for me. And there wasn’t a huge change from the first draft to…the first worked on draft to the final form because it was…for some reason, for this one, it became apparent to me quite early that it wanted to go into triplets. I quite often write in three-line stanzas. So, it’s quite a natural form for me. And I appear to have experimented with making it into syllabic poetry with the same number of syllables in each line. But again, a couple of tries and it wasn’t quite working, so I went back to just reading it out loud and listening to how it sounded, which is a way I quite often work if I’m not quite sure how to proceed. Does that sound right when I read it if I put the break there? That’s quite a common way for me of working.

And it seemed… I think this went through about six or seven sort of major drafts. It lost about a quarter of its original length. It was a bit longer. And the line endings all got moved around and rearranged and played with the punctuation, which is, again, something I like to do. And it was a relatively painless editing process for this one. It’s not always that, but this one was relatively painless. And one of the disadvantages of this kind of nibbling editing I was talking about is that sometimes it can be hard to stop.

Mark: Right. Like the mouse with the cheese.

Paul: Because you can always fiddle with a line or a word ending.

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: And I was quite good about this one. I seemed to have stopped relatively early and decided, ‘Well, yeah, I probably could fiddle with it some more, but I don’t think it’s going to make a major difference.’ So, that was how we ended up with the three-line stanzas, with the enjambment, the running between lines. And there’s a kind of… It’s absolutely not a sonnet, but it does have a sort of a turn in it. And if you look closely at it, you’ll find that the first stanza, the last stanza, and I think the fourth stanza have a full stop at the end and none of the others do. And…

Mark: Yes. You’re right.

Paul: So, the first is kind of a statement of where we start. The last is a statement of where we end. And the one with a stop in the middle is about where the poem starts to turn away from the purely linguistic into something else. So, that was actually thought through, which is nice and nice to be able to say that.

Mark: Gosh. And, obviously, I hadn’t noticed that, but it would’ve had an effect.

Paul: No. And you shouldn’t.

Mark: Yes.

Paul: I don’t think you should, but it’s there.

Mark: Under the hood.

Paul: To me, I mean, I think form in a poem is tremendously important, but the best form is the form that you don’t notice because you just read it and say, ‘Wow.’

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: I’m trying to think. There’s… Is it Kathryn Simmonds? Somebody wrote a sestina called ‘Sunday at the Skin Launderette’.

Mark: Yes, that’s Kathryn Simmonds. Yeah.

Paul: Yeah. I thought it was. And at the first time I read that, I didn’t even realize it was a sestina because I was so blown away by the imagery.

Mark: Yeah, that’s great. That’s really great.

Paul: I thought, ‘Wow.’ And then it was only sometime after, ‘Oh, how clever. That’s a sestina.’ And that to me is the best use of form, it’s when you don’t even notice it, it’s just there making that poem work.

Mark: Yeah. Because you’re entranced by it. And what is it about the three-line stanza that you like so much, Paul?

Paul: That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s by no means the only form. And recently an awful lot of my poetry has been turning up as 14-liners, not sonnets necessarily, but it’s definitely 14 lines. But I have certainly in the past written a great deal in these. And I don’t know. I think it’s… First of all, I think it’s a really good form for enjambment because there’s something about that unbalanced of three as opposed to four or two that naturally makes it spill over into the next thing. I also think it comes… I also think a lot of it comes from reading Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante.

Mark: Oh, right.

Paul: Which, of course, it’s terza rima.

Mark: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: But it’s… So, that’s got a very formal rhyme pattern, but it’s nonetheless very clever use of triplets, and again things move from one to the other. So, I read that relatively young and so I think it’s somewhere at the back of my mind as an influence. I have tried writing terza rima. It’s quite difficult to do well in English.

Mark: Very, very difficult. And she really sticks to it. I mean, arguably at straining the sense together.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, sometimes it’s a little bit contrived, but ahead of its time, that translation. But…

Mark: Yeah. It was the old Penguin Classics one, wasn’t it?

Paul: But it’s certainly very readable.

Mark: Yes. Yeah. And of course, every one of those tercets in the divine comedy was interlocked with all of the other ones in this architectural edifice that Dante was building. And clearly, you have a much lighter touch in your pamphlet. How do you see the relationship between this poem and the others in the collection?

Paul: I think one of the interesting things about reading people’s collections is that they really show our obsessions. I think poets have themes and things that they keep coming back to and you’ll find it in a lot of their poetry. And I think this poem is probably very illustrative of some of my obsessions. As I say, the thing about linguistics, the thing about the physicality and the physical aspects of poetry, how poetry which is a kind of… as a concept exists physically in the world through us and our bodies. And those are themes that you’ll find all through that collection.

Mark: Absolutely. Well, thank you, Paul, for coming on and reading something that is so beautiful and surprising out of something that is so easily overlooked, so unobtrusive, so diffident, as you put it. So, I think maybe this would be a nice point to hear the poem again.

Paul: Okay.


 

Ə [Schwa]

by Paul Blake

Here is its sign – Ə, an e doing handstands,
because although we say it with every breath
it does not have a letter in my language.

The sound of hesitation, uncertain, diffident,
creeping between the consonants like a cat
weaving between legs. Not the rough

breathing of ’ain, harsh as sand-laced wind,
nor the brisk closing of gates in a glottal stop.
Schwa, uh, er, huh. The thing it knows

is quietly moving on, its raison-d’être’s helping
things to flow. So we do: breathe, and carry on
as we must, to get where we’re going.

Uh, er, huh. Simple Ə. And its sign, turned e,
might not seem right, too much the show-off
for this little sound, this sigh we make,

the body’s opening to the wide world of air.
Yet surely something should do handstands,
at the sweetness of breath, that necessary

lovely thing, so rarely noticed when we
are at our ease, when every breath flows
freely. Something that remembers soul –

that soul is also a breath infusing us, a wind,
ruah, that blows through the towns of flesh.
Ruah, whose root also means perfume.


 

A Massacre of Hummingbirds

‘Ə [Schwa]’ by Paul Blake is from his pamphlet A Massacre of Hummingbirds published by Stonewood Press.

A Massacre of Hummingbirds book cover

A Massacre of Hummingbirds is available from:

The publisher: Stonewood Press

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK 

 

Paul Blake

Paul Blake portrait photo

Paul currently divides his time between North Norfolk and London. He works as a medical writer and is a consultant for the World Health Organization. He has had short stories and poems published in a variety of magazines including Iota, Brittle Star, Poetry Scotland, Scheherazade and Altair. His pamphlet A Massacre of Hummingbirds was published by Stonewood Press in 2016. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies This Little Stretch of Life and Said and Done, and he regularly reviews first collections for Brittle Star magazine. His poem ‘Triboluminescence’ was highly commended in the Forward Prize for Poetry.

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson

Episode 36 The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Kraken’ by Alfred Tennyson.Poet Alfred TennysonReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Below the thunders of the upper deep;Far, far beneath in the abysmal...

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Episode 34 Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.Poet Samuel Taylor ColeridgeReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessKubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. by Samuel Taylor Coleridge...

Sentience by Maggie Sawkins

Episode 33 Sentience by Maggie Sawkins  Maggie Sawkins reads ‘Sentience’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: The House Where Courage Lives by Maggie Sawkins Available from: The House Where Courage Lives is available from: The publisher:...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

fourteen − five =

Arts Council England logo