Sound Check

What do Wallace Stevens and hip-hop music have in common? Rhythm, and lots of it. In both "Sunday Morning" and a hip-hop song, the rhythm matters at least as much as the words. A hip-hop singer is usually willing to risk using a lyric that doesn’t make perfect sense if it flows really well. Stevens does the same thing in his almost-perfect blank verse lines, which usually have exactly 10 syllables. The meaning doesn’t have to be crystal clear, but it had better sound good.

Take these lines from stanza III about the Roman god Jove: "No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave / Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind" (lines 32-33). You can probably ask a lot of scholars what these lines mean, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. What exactly are "large-mannered motions," and is "mythy" even a word? But, if you read these lines out loud, they just make sense somehow. The rhythm is interesting, and the repeated use of words that begin with the letter "m" slows down the poem and prepares us for the word "magnificent." Something about those "m" words – we’re not sure exactly what – gives the impression that the poem is talking about a powerful and important subject – which is appropriate, because it’s talking about the chief god of Roman mythology.

The rhythm of a good hip-hop song is never boring or monotonous. There are usually a lot of pauses, and the song speeds up or slows down at different times. Sometimes, the artist will throw in some word or reference that will make the listener say, "Whoa, where did that come from?" Stevens does all of these things. Check out how many periods and commas there are in the middle of his lines. He’s constantly mixing things up. He uses all kinds of cool-sounding adjectives like "ambiguous," "savage," and "inarticulate," along with old-school words like "wont" and "whither."

And, just when you start to follow what he’s saying, he changes the subject – like when he comes out of nowhere to describe naked men singing at a pagan ritual in stanza VII. It’s not that he deliberately tries to be confusing: he just wants to keep you on your toes. When you are learning to dance, people always say that following the beat is the most important thing. Do the same thing while reading "Sunday Morning," and you’ll discover that it is poetry you can (almost) dance to.

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