Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 4, 2007

What does it mean to "hear" a poem? Simply to pay attention? Or does hearing involve technical matters: scansion, Greek names for patterns of sound, precise meanings for "stress," "accent," "duration," "pitch"? Or does hearing entail professional performance: Is it best to hear some expert -- an actor or a rapper or the author -- read a poem? Hearing poetry can be plainer, more central and more immediate than any of that. Listen to "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk," by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), as it comes out in your own actual or imagined voice. Don't stop for the rhymes -- they will take care of themselves. Just hear the words you say:

Nature, that washed her hands in milk

And had forgot to dry them,

Instead of earth took snow and silk

At Love's request, to try them

If she a mistress could compose

To please Love's fancy out of those.

Her eyes he would should be of light,

A violet breath, and lips of jelly,

Her hair not black nor over-bright,

And of the softest down her belly:

As for her inside, he'd have it

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