The sounds around you

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiDec 05, 2014 | 18:38

The sounds around you

My neighbourhood used to be a quiet one, until a decade or so ago. When the first trucks carrying sand and steel came rolling by, we thought they were an aberration but they were to soon become the norm. Even as I write this, an earth mover and a cement mixer do their work in different parts of the neighbourhood. It's hard to find a moment in the day or night that does not hum with the sound of machinery. And yet, when I try to recall the presence of machines in poetry, I can think of only one or two poems off the top of my head.


It's been a 100 years since the First World War; a century since it became clear that war, like the mills or the shipyard, was also a site of industry. When Wilfred Owen wrote 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', his words spat out the sounds of the trenches - 'the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle' and 'the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells'.

Cinema has probably responded better than poetry to the world of machines, but the technological world had its speakers, even if they didn't always champion or celebrate the brave new world but instead had - like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times - an altogether more bleak response.

In 'The Secret of the Machines', Rudyard Kipling sees the machine-led world as being full of possibility, one that can be re-shaped to suit the will of humans:

  • Do you wish to make the mountains bare their head
  • And lay their new-cut forests at your feet?
  • Do you want to turn a river in its bed,
  • Or plant a barren wilderness with wheat?
  • Shall we pipe aloft and bring you water down
  • From the never-failing cisterns of the snows,
  • To work the mills and tramways in your town,
  • And irrigate your orchards as it flows?
  • It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
  • Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake
  • As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
  • And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.

It's hard not to read the imperial ambitions of a nation in Kipling's poem; he is celebratory in the same way that a patriotic Subramania Bharati celebrates the nation and industry in 'Bharata Desam'. In their poetry, machines exist to serve humans, who seem to remain unaffected by the way their creations have changed the world around them. It's hard to swallow that blithe optimism from this century with its ecological poverty and human suffering.

Later in that century, George Oppen wrote 'Image of the Engine'. It is a long, complex poem on the nature of machinery and mortality:

  • Endlessly, endlessly,
  • The definition of mortality
  • The image of the engine
  • That stops.
  • We cannot live on that.
  • I know that no one would live out
  • Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending
  • With his life.

It is rare to find utopias imagined in poetry, especially if it a mechanistic one. That territory belongs to science fiction, and many writers have wrung both poetry and beauty out of their imagined, futuristic worlds. But Richard Brautigan makes a playful attempt at imagining a perfect harmony between lifeforms and machines in 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace':

  • I like to think
  • (right now, please!)
  • of a cybernetic forest
  • filled with pines and electronics
  • where deer stroll peacefully
  • past computers
  • as if they were flowers
  • with spinning blossoms.

My favourite poem, though, is the first one I thought of when I began this column: W.H. Auden's 'Night Mail', which is not just an ode to the Royal Mail, not merely a celebration of communication but also a wonderful marriage of sound and rhythm with theme and thought. In John Grierson's famous documentary of the same name, Auden himself reads the poem.

  • Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
  • Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
  • Snorting noisily as she passes
  • Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
  • Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
  • Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches


For this month's prompt, I'd like you to think of what the world around you, in the first quarter of the 21st century, sounds like.

Make a catalogue of sounds and see how many of them are 'human-made' and how many belong to the 'natural' world. I am fairly certain that the whip of fan blades, the deep cough of the refrigerator starting to life, the clicks of a cooling car engine and the ubiquitous beeps and trills of cellphones and laptops will outnumber birdsong and the soft rustles of leaves in the breeze.

And yet, these are sounds we hardly ever hear in poetry.

Make your poem a sound poem. Pay attention to the sound of words, to alliteration and onomatopoeia, to rhythm and accent; but be careful to not make it only a collection of sounds or to make doggerel out of it. Think of what the sounds you hear are attached to, the presence of those machines as machines; think of how their absence would affect your life in the singular and the world in general. Think of machines merged with flesh. Think of machine life and human life.

When you write this poem, be certain that you have an idea. Then tether that idea to the sound. As always, write, put it away, then revise. Re-read the poems linked to in this column. Read them aloud. Read your poem aloud.

When you are happy with it - and you should be happy with it by the 20th! - send it to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com. Poems submitted are to be under 20 lines and are to be submitted by December 20. Poems not written to prompt will not be considered.

I look forward, as always, with both anxiety and anticipation, to your entries!

Last updated: December 05, 2014 | 18:38
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