“Church Bell” does not capture that sound that you hear.

When we first began looking at the language poets and their examination of what, precisely, language is and does, I was a little bit skeptical of the work we were reading. I understand the concept that language is highly limited, and I actually love that idea, but I couldn’t quite let go of the fact that language can still be so very beautiful, something that a lot of experimental poets or poems don’t seem to be concerned with.

However, reading Jorie Graham’s work was quite another experience. I particularly enjoyed her poem “The Swarm,” which experiments with the idea of words as referents for objects and language and sound as being unable to convey or accomplish certain things.

One of the first things I noticed as I read the poem is the presence of the word “listen” in the first line, and the word “hear” in the last. I think these words frame the poem quite well – not only is the person to whom the speaker is speaking supposed to listen for the church bells, but we are to listen to the poem. I also like that “listen,” a request, comes first, and “hear,” the action, later, as if the speaker’s request to listen to the church bells mirrors Graham’s “request” to listen to her poem.

Another conspicuous move Graham makes is the omission of the sounds of the church bells in the fifth stanza. Rather than attempting to capture the sound of the ringing in letters, she simply leaves a blank where the word or sound would go. She does reference each chime of the bell as a petal falling, however, which interestingly has no sound at all. In that same stanza Graham uses the word “yes” six times, the first in parentheses, the next following “like a vertebrate,” and the last four making up their own line with nothing else, including punctuation. These “yesses,” which seem to be the affirmation of the voice on the telephone that they can hear the bells, actually seem to be the closest Graham gives us to the sound of the bells themselves. It’s interesting that we don’t even know whether or not the person has heard the bells – in fact, we never hear from the person directly – and yet their affirmation, or at least what the speaker hopes to hear from them, is the closest we can get to hearing their sound. The form of the last line, “yes yes yes yes,” is written like an echo as a bell would be, but clearly the sound itself isn’t captured.

In the stanzas to follow, the most noticeable repetition is of the word “blue.” It is used six times before the end of the poem, often in ways that don’t make a lot of logistical sense, for instance, in “something announces itself/ like a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down…” However, the reader can’t help but hear the sound of the word over and over (six times in twelve lines, two of those lines containing the word twice). I think this goes back to Graham’s instruction to “listen” and her question at the end of whether or not we “hear” – like the echo of “yes” as the speaker tries to get her or his companion to hear the bells in order to feel together, we are given the repetition of “blue” not so much for the word itself as for the echo and connection it brings.

The last thing I wanted to point out is just something I loved about Graham’s language – in the eighth line from the end of the poem, the speaker refers to the telephone as “the plastic parenthetical opening wherein I have you.” I love that description that so carefully balances the idea of plastic, something hard and impersonal, with a “parenthetical opening,” which for me creates the image of a curve (presumably the mouthpiece) mimicking one half of a parentheses – one half on each side of the ocean, with a relationship filling the space between even though physical proximity isn’t possible. It’s a beautiful idea.


I’d be interested to see what other people thought about Graham’s experiments with language – is her balance between words as beautiful and flawed believable? Do her omissions and echoes work?  Is her work an experiment in the first place?

12 thoughts on ““Church Bell” does not capture that sound that you hear.

  1. I also enjoyed reading The Swarm by Jorie Graham due to her invoking of sounds through language. From the title “The Swarm,” I started reading the poem with the idea of what a swarm sounds like, not what a swarm is. This is mainly because my own conception of what a swarm is has always been the sound. My experience, in reference to a swarm, has always been the sound of bees and not what a swarm of bees looks like. Whenever bees have come in contact with me when I am sitting outside socializing or eating, I can never really see the bees surrounding me. They fly all over the place, yet I hear their buzzing-swarming sound. I am not too sure where I am exactly going with this, but I think Graham is trying to emphasize the sounds visual things, whether they be animals, objects, peoples, places, can make even if one cannot interact with them by visually seeing them.

  2. It’s great that someone decided to write a post on “The Swarm”, which I consider one of the most beautiful poems that we have dealt with within the spectrum of language poetry. While not as rawly “experimental” as, say, “Lives of the Toll Takers”, I think that the poem does contain meditations on the role of language in constructing reality. In particular the poet’s repetition of “blue” leads to some interesting commentary on linguistic identification.

    In the stanza beginning “We were somebody.”, the poet invokes the image of a boat in a harbor, a scene in which an unidentified something announces itself like “a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down,/ a roughness inserted.” To me, the author is commenting on the process of identification, by which one comes to know something as a distinct entity. The “whole blueness” might be interpreted as the implied blueness of the sky and water that surround the boat, which aside from the “few birds glancing around” is the only object in the scene. By saying that something new and discrete has been created from the general blueness, the author imagines a process by which something that was once a part of the general blueness of the scene has become something separate, “a roughness inserted”. This process is that of identification, by which something is categorized and understood in specific terms.

    Later, the author seems to treat this process of identification as problematic, “right there in the thin air, a debris re-/assembling, a blue transparent bit of paper flapping in also-blue air,/ boundaries being squeezed out of the blue, out of the inside of the blue.” The “blue transparent bit of paper” that the author alludes to is likely the “roughness inserted” into the general blueness of the harbor scene, however its distinctiveness from that general blue is questionable. It is a small bit of paper that is both blue and transparent flying through “the also-blue air”, something that would be nearly impossible to identify as separate from “the whole blueness” of the scene. The poet’s identification of this bit of paper as a discreet entity seems related to her statement “boundaries being squeezed out of the blue, out of inside the blue.” This seems to constitute a reflection on the action of language in assigning something an identity; namely that it functions by creating boundaries between a specific object and everything else. The transparent blue paper in the also-blue air is realized through the poet’s language that treats it as separate from the larger blueness, in spite of the fact that it’s physical appearance renders it indistinct from its surroundings.

    The poet acknowledges this peculiarity more explicitly in the lines that directly precede the emergence of the blue paper, saying, “yes,/ the infinite variety of having once been,/of being, of coming to life,” Having once been and being are some of the most basic terms of identification, literally the means by which one understands what a thing was or is. By acknowledging the “infinite variety” of these terms, the speaker seems to question the capacity of language to truly identify anything. While it was language that allowed the impossibly indistinct bit of paper to emerge from the larger blueness, the terms used to describe it ultimately fail to pin down exactly what it is. To the poet, it would seem that there exists a gap between the limited number of words in the dictionary and the limitless range of things that they must identify.

    The speaker goes on to describe the harbor scene in more detail “a sunny day, a crisp Aegean blue,/ easy things—a keel, a sail,” however these added details seem to only further underscore the disparity between language and reality. The speaker names the blue, and begins to specifically detail parts of the boat while saying that they are “easy things” to identify. Nevertheless, her description remains incomplete. What color is the sail? How big is the keel? The answers to these questions would lead to further, more specific, ones, gradually producing a more specific and precise picture of the boat. While pages of details could be complied, one would never posses an exact understanding of what the boat looks like, only perhaps how this boat is different from any other boat.

    I think that this poem is very acutely aware of the issues with which language poetry is concerned, and it uses them to paint a very poignant picture of a human relationship. The two people on opposite ends of the phone can never truly know what it is like to be the other person, and their individual experience is something that no other person can ever have perfect access to. Divided by the literal and metaphoric ocean and linked only through the tiny holes of the telephone receiver, the individuals in the poem are together and yet profoundly alone. Though the speaker can try her best to relay the scene outside of her window to her partner, her words will always fall short.

  3. I would agree that the inherent inability to express true experience, but also the vain attempt to do so in Graham’s poem The Swarm is beautiful. I think she strays away from a lot of the language poets in general in that vein, accepting that words cannot do it all, cannot encapsulate the essence of an event as fully as living it would. I would say that this poem in particular is definitely more experimental even compared to her others, in that it departs from many of the traditional double meaning evocations similar to other language poetry. The pauses, repetitions and omissions sustain their effect I believe wholeheartedly, if even to convey that the effect they are trying to convey is indescribable. Graham’s notion to right a poem concerning this conundrum is absolutely fascinating and honestly so well executed in The Swarm.

  4. I’m also a fan of “The Swarm,” and I think that Graham says so much in the places where she’s not actually saying anything, as when she leaves the physical space in the poetic line for the sound of the bells. I really like the comment that she never really describes anything in full detail and just leaves room for more questions about what she’s seeing and experiencing. In doing so, I think that she is acknowledging that there are limits to what she can make the person on the other side of the phone understand. Even if she was being interrogated with question after question about the scene before her, there is only so much that language can comprehend.
    I also find her repetition of the world “blue” interesting, as both an adjective and a noun. I think that it follows as part of a constant string of references to the ocean – the speaker also mentions the “transatlantic opening,” a boat on the sea, “a crisp Aegean blue,” and “the long ocean between us.” She describes so much in terms of the ocean and includes imagery of wide expanses of blue, which may as well be the ocean. I read the constant references to the sea as a reminder: the ocean is there. It’s a reality, and the speaker keeps referring back to it and using it to describe other things that she sees because that’s one thing that both speaker and listener can understand – there is an ocean between them, and language is imperfect in bridging that distance.

  5. I truly appreciated your post because it made me remember how much I loved Jorie Graham’s “The Swarm.” Your reading of the poem is very insightful and you focus on some aspects I have never noticed. You mention your appreciation of the line, “the plastic parenthetical opening wherein I have you.” I agree that this is particularly striking–who knew one could relate language and a telephone so eloquently? I also think “this tiny geometric swarm of/openings sending to you” is beautiful. I can just picture the little holes on the telephone receiver taking her voice through its wires and across the ocean.

  6. I love that so many people picked up on the beauty of this poem too! There’s just something about this scene that, although I think we can all agree that language is portrayed as being ultimately limited, is still undeniably present and human. We get a sense of the emotion of the moment even though there isn’t a word for it, and Graham doesn’t actually try to explain her mood at all – I think that’s part of the genius of the poem.
    I also realized, particularly from Gen’s comment, that I didn’t really consider the title before; it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual content of the poem. Is there maybe a relationship between the sound of a swarm and the static you get when a telephone connection goes bad?
    Joe, I really like how much you pulled out of the repetition of blue and the paper versus the sky, and I definitely agree with your comments about the limitations of words to capture the essence of the infinite things there are to describe.
    I also love Holly’s interpretation that the blue is a constant reminder of the presence of the ocean. In the light of Joe’s observations about the blue paper blending into the blue sky, I wonder if we could also read it as that sense of indeterminate being, the idea that everything kinda blurs together after a point because our words aren’t sharp enough to capture the details.
    Audrey, your idea that the repetition and other techniques are there partly for an effect even Graham can’t quite express is interesting. I wonder if we could relate that to what I mentioned earlier, that we all get a sense of beauty and emotion from this even though we’re given a situation and not a descriptive monologue? There’s definitely something here that’s rather ineffable, and I think we all see it but we can’t quite put our fingers on it or tie it down…

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