Poetry Sunday: “Hum,” by Cintia Santana

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Cintia Santana a few years ago at a poetry workshop hosted by Tupelo Press in Truchas, New Mexico, and was immediately drawn to her poems—profound and mysterious without being overly complex or opaque. Clear language artfully arranged to create layered, textured and resonant poems—that is how I remember Santana’s work, and I am eagerly awaiting her first collection. Today’s poem, “Hum,” is unmetered and unrhymed free verse in 35 extremely short lines collected into one long, columnar stanza. The shape it makes on the page is striking, long and thin like a hummingbird’s proboscis. Shaped poems, designed for their visual, graphic impact on the page, have been around for centuries and are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the Digital Age where it is so much easier to manipulate text. I am thinking now about my mother-in-law who in the 1950s used a manual typewriter to prepare her PhD dissertation in Chemistry, and of the page of which she was particularly proud: essentially one big theorem or formula. To create the mathematical symbols she needed, she had to stack and build images using dashes, slashes, punctuation marks, and letters available on the keyboard then. That page, she said, took her literal days (plus a few quarts of white-out and probably scotch as well) to compose.

Today’s poem is less an actual “shape poem” than a poem whose line breaks happen to result in a recognizable geometric  shape, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about what is now called  “concrete poetry” or “visual poetry.” The Poetry Foundation defines “concrete poetry” as “[v]erse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic.” For an interesting selection of such shaped poems, visit here. And, to see how the idea has been pressed by modern technology well beyond its previous limits, visit here.

Historically, concrete poetry developed from a long tradition of shaped poems arranging words on the page in such a way as to depict or suggest their subject.Such poems were popular in ancient Greece, although only a handful now survive, including poems by Simmias of Rhodes in the form of an egg, wings, and a hatchet. [Id.]  Early religious examples of shaped poems in the English language include George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” shown below, and “The Altar,” both from his bookThe Temple (1633).

George Herbert‘s “Easter Wings” (1633), printed sideways on facing pages so that the lines would call to mind angels flying with outstretched wings

The French Renaissance poet Francois Rabelais wrote a poem in the shape of wine flagons (of course he did) and the Victorian English writer Lewis Carroll wrote one in the shape of a mouse tail (ditto), a wonderful meandering whimsy shown here. Shaped poetry was explored in the twentieth century by Guillaume Apollinaire in his Calligrammes (1918), poems designed to resemble a necktie, a fountain, and raindrops running down a window. That era also saw typographical experiments by avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, in which the visual representation of the poem (in a movement presaging language poetry) began to assumeartistic primacy over its meaning. Such work teaches us to see words and letters as building blocks of visual art, rather like colors and paint to the artist. “While many readers now associate the term ‘concrete poetry’ with poems whose outlines depict a recognizable shape—John Hollander‘s collection Types of Shape, for example—the ideas behind concrete poetry are much broader,” according to the American Academy of Poets, calling concrete poetry “as much pieces of visual art made with words as they are poems.”

Concrete poetry blurs the boundaries between visual and literary art, but poetry has always paid attention to how a poem looks on the page and especially to the spaces and lines between words. In “visual poetry,” an extension of concrete poetry, the non-representational language and visual elements clearly dominate, and meaning is secondary or even nonexistent. In such poems, typeface and font style and size can be varied to create different effects. An analog in the realm of visual art might be nonrepresentational abstract art by, say, Diebenkorn or Pollock. Here is a great article that offers a glimpse on how the technological advances of the last few decades have extended the idea of visual poetry.

Today’s poem does not jettison meaning but instead uses its shape to augment or enhance that meaning, much like this example of another tall, skinny poem, one by Linda Pastan. The central image of “Hum” is a hummingbird—not so much what the bird might look like in an Audubon print as how we actually experience the creatures in the garden or the wild. Have you ever been “buzzed” by one? The experience is bizarre, at least as sonic and tactile (because of the vibration) as it is visual. Or more so; sometimes you don’t even see the bird, except maybe at the periphery of your vision. The feeling is one of brief, astonishing urgency, reinforced by Santana in short lines fashioned into three long sentences: one beginning with “slip” (line 1) and ending with “sing” (line 9); one beginning with “To nectar” (line 10) and ending with “more day” (line 23); and one beginning with “Butterfly” (line 24) and ending with “tongue” (line 35). In an example of synesthesia, the poem “looks” the way a hum “sounds”—one long, thin, continuous stream of staccato points or sounds.

My guess is that “Hum” is sound-driven and that sonic rather than visual patterning is what determined its line breaks and very short lines. Sound is very important to the poem. While not following a formal metrical pattern, it nevertheless exhibits  monometer, with many lines having one beat. Internal repetitions of sound are striking. There is consonance in “fan / furious” (lines 3-4), “nectar / need / no” (lines 10-13), “starvation / staved” (lines 20-21), and “wing / whistle” (lines 27-28). Rhyme is abundant if not patterned, with “wing” and “sing” rhyming in lines 8-9, “vials” and “defiled” rhyming across lines 17 and 19, and a subtle but very effective rhyme closing the poem, “tongue” in line 35 rhyming with “come” in line 25. The word “wing” recurs three times, in lines 5, 8, and 27. These sound repetitions help knit the discrete sounds of the poem into something more continuous, much the way spinning transforms a mass of fluffy wool into one long, tough thread.

I remember being surprised the first time I realized that short lines slow a poem down rather than speed it up. When a poem is read aloud, a reader will generally pause a beat or half beat at the end of each line. Line breaks come sooner and more often with short lines, and even when reading silently, each break requires a pause for the time it takes the eye to reverse left and drop down to the next line of text. If you time yourself reading “Hum’s” lines as Santana wrote them and then again as re-lineated below, you’ll see it takes longer to read the poem in the short-line format:



Slip of bird with fan of furious wings in blossom’s throat
I hear your wing-beat sing. To nectar you need no key,
mid-rib of leaf or sip from little red vials constantly defiled;
starvation staved for one more day. Butterfly weed, too,
bids your wing-whistle come: sing me, guard me, lap me
with your split tongue.


The paradoxical truth is that long lines speed up a poem because such lines require fewer pauses. A poem with short lines may appear “simpler,” but it’s actually harder—and takes longer—to read, either silently or aloud. Thus, “Hum” acts like a time-elapse camera to slow and even stop time so that we can catch a glimpse of the elusive hummingbird.

There are at least two examples of anastrophe, or reversal of normal syntax patterns, in “Hum.” One delays the subject (“I hear / your wing / -beat sing”) until the very end of its sentence, and another (“To nectar / you need / no key”) reverses the order of subject and predicate prepositional phrase. The effect here, I think, is to mimic the pivot-switchback motion that is very much a part of what we perceive as the blur and hum of a hummingbird’s flight.

Narrative poems move time forward; lyric poems often try to capture the experience of a single moment in time, and reading “Hum”—especially aloud—presents the brief but unforgettable experience of getting buzzed by a hummingbird. The closing image of a hummingbird’s “split” tongue is surprising, and maybe even a little shocking. Of course I had to go to Google to confirm that hummingbirds do, indeed, have cloven tongues; for a wow video example of this, go here. In any event, the word “split” jars us out of our normal perceptions and associations and makes us see hummingbirds again for the very strange creatures they are—almost never still, with hearts that sometimes explode from their near-frantic and perpetual motion. The ending of “Hum” does what Heather McHugh once told me all good poem endings should do: It feels inevitable at the same time it opens outward into something larger. Yeats said the ending of a poem should be like the click of the closing lid of a well-made box, but I prefer to think of it as a threshold or portal that can be crossed, allowing the poem and reader to escape beyond it and into the wide world, the way those hummingbirds come to us briefly and then—like that—are gone.

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