Just Like A Circle Round The Sun
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
Vowels, Consonants, and Sound-Mimesis in Poetry
In high school I was a wannabe singer-songwriter and, especially, a James Taylor geek. “Fire and Rain” inspired in me the fervent wish that my girlfriend had just died so I could mourn her all the time and sing a lot of songs about how my life had been shattered by her sudden demise. The only problem, though, was that I didn’t have a girlfriend, and, besides, she wasn’t about to die anyway. She was pretty healthy, all told, and on Friday nights she was discovering the sordid ecstasies of romance with somebody else—some non-geek—in the back seat of his dad’s car down at a heavily wooded place, which, on account of all the cars parked there at night with their tail lights on, was called Red City.
Rocking a little, the cars.
Rhythmically, sort of, because . . . well, you know.
Since I was never in one of those cars, I had to content myself on Friday nights with playing James Taylor’s iconic song over and over on the stereo console until I eventually figured out the arrangement on my guitar. While my non-girlfriend was fully committed to somebody else’s anti-poetic, and so-not-mournful clutches, I was crooning “Fire and Rain” in my bedroom over and over until I got pretty good at it—the guitar part, that is. I couldn’t sing it like J.T. because, well, I was only a wannabe, not the real thing.
Still, if on one of those Friday evenings my non-girlfriend had stopped messing around with old Flavor-of-the-Week and come over to my house and heard me delicately finger-styling “Fire and Rain,” she might have realized the error of her ways, written him out of her life, and signed on with me. Then we could have had a beautiful romance together, reading poetry and singing innocently on some porch somewhere until one day she died and so became the one I was singing the song about in my post-her-mortem life of loneliness and despair—and beautiful guitar-playing—and being a reclusive, self-effacing pop star churning out smash hits filled with tenderness and angst.
She never did, though.
Dump him, that is.
Or come over to my house.
I don’t know if she’s died by now, but if she has I don’t miss her. That might sound callous but, well, I didn’t even know her. And it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know her. I mean, the door was open, and there I was singing my heart out—you know?—all about sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.
Well, okay, maybe I miss her a little bit.
Her name, by the way, was Donna.
Anyway, with her being AWOL in my life I got more and more into music and, especially, James Taylor. I bought all his earlier albums and, for the next few years until I discovered Neil Young, two or three of his subsequent albums, too. I liked his earlier songs a lot. In particular, one really delicate and heart-breaking piece on his eponymous first album resonated deeply with my sense of having lost the love of my life without actually having had one. This was a beautifully arranged song called “Circle Round The Sun,” crafted by Taylor from an older blues song called “I know You Rider,” which the Grateful Dead used to perform quite frequently. Taylor distilled its poetry and created an arrangement that was ethereally lonely, filled with wind and wild geese and mountain sunrises, and, of course, the half-dreamed caress of an absent lover. I never tried to learn it because I knew for sure I couldn’t sing it, especially the last verse before the return of the song’s opening one. I simply didn’t have the chops to pull it off.
The verse in question goes as follows:
Now I know that sunrise, sunrise, yeah It's gonna shine in my back yard someday I said I know that sunrise, sunrise, sunrise It's gonna shine in my back yard someday, hey And that wind's just bound to rise up Gonna blow, blow all my blues away, hey, hey, hey
I don’t consider all the yeahs and hey-hey-heys lyrics, strictly speaking. They’re sort of trademark elements of Taylor’s vocal style at the time, and only he, it seemed, could sing them convincingly without sounding rock ‘n roll-ish and so breaking from the lyricism of the song. Additionally, the repetition of sunrise, sunrise, sunrise in the third line, after having repeated it twice in the first . . . well, that was something only a truly talented vocalist could do convincingly, ie. blues-ily. I was glad for J.T. that he had those signature tics. While they weren’t at the core of his brilliant delivery of the verse, I still thought they worked nicely. I liked them so much, in fact, that they became indispensable aspects of any a capella performance I might undertake spontaneously in the shower, say—or walking past Red City some night on my way home from the library. Each time I heard myself, of course, I became more and more convinced that I wasn’t the real thing, which was good in the long run. It saved me a few wasted years trying to be someone, or something, I wasn’t.
What always got to me about Taylor's rendition of this particular verse, though—what gave me the fantods, so to speak—was the way, when he got to the last line, upon each repetition of the word blow he extended the vowel across what sounded like three syllables, each one more mournful than the last, and, as if that wasn’t amazing enough, went on to sustain blues for so long you could almost hear it in the air above some valley somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, disembodied, eternally forlorn, trailing almost imperceptibly into away—the second syllable of which sounded so equally lonely and sustained and, well, final, that you were thankful he still had to sing the first verse again—so he couldn’t just dissolve into a polar vortex of despair and cancel his map, as David Foster Wallace might put it, who, by the way, ended up cancelling his.
I don’t listen to James Taylor much anymore, or even pay attention to what he’s doing, but I’m grateful to him for providing me at an early age with such a moving demonstration of the relationship between language and music. I can’t honestly attest that at that time it was worth not learning about all the other relationships there were to know about, including the sorts that tended to reach quick culminations in the back seats of cars without much by way of melancholic after-longings. In the long run, though, and down through the years, it has formed a basis for understanding the dynamic and, I would assert, universally human impulse behind poetry’s (and song’s) expression of our longing for the ideal, which is ultimately a spiritual longing and therefore uniquely resonant of what we mean when we speak, along with all the great world religions, of the human soul. For the human soul, I would venture—insofar as, being a soul and all, it’s the part of us capable of channeling the divine—is the most important thing in the universe, along with animals’ souls, of course, and plants’ souls, mushrooms especially.
The thing is, in that entire verse the absolute best words in which to invest all of the song’s longing and belief are those very words in the last line I was telling you Taylor sang so perfectly. This isn’t, strictly speaking, just because of what they mean. Rather, I believe, it’s because of certain technical aspects of how they sound, as well as how the words leading up to them sound. It’s a matter of consonants and vowels, the specific ones in the line, in the specific order in which they occur—leaving out the heys, though, which in their own way extend the effect, but which, as I’ve mentioned, are not indispensable as lyrics per se.
The heartbreak proper, I’d venture, begins with the “aw” sound of the “o” in the word [g]onna, and it doesn’t let up until that long “ā-ee” of away diminuendos seemingly forever into the mist of that Blue Ridge mountain valley. The line is a nearly uninterrupted string of low- and high- frequency vowel sounds, the dark, mournful low-frequency ones mostly at the start of the line, yielding in the latter half to the more painful, almost lonesome-coyote-baying high-frequency ones. God forbid a performer as intuitively brilliant as Taylor, at least in those days, at least when he recorded this song, would ever stop to parse out frequencies before actually singing it. It would take him right out of the performance and he might even end up sounding like me in the shower or trudging past the throbbing taillights of Red City. However, as I’ve said, I was a wannabe, and probably still am, so I was and am likely enough to perpetrate a parsing like this in order to understand an effect that I am unable actually to render.
Anyway, the wonky technical angle has to do with the physics of sound, which, as the white-coats will happily ‘splain, travels in waves. Said waves have different durations, from their inceptions through their apexes to their terminations. The shorter the durations, the more waves in a given unit of nano-time; vice versa, the longer the durations. Shorter (high-frequency) sound waves—such as those making up the “ā-ee” of the second syllable of away, or the “ī-ee” of my—cause our eardrums to vibrate more quickly, frenetically even, and this creates a feeling in our brain of excitement, or elation, or, in a more negative meaning-context, pain, anger, and the like. Low frequency waves hit the eardrum more slowly and create “deeper” feelings in the brain, like awe, or tranquility, or, in the negative zone, sadness, loss, disappointment—that sort of thing. The “aw” of the first syllable of [g]onna, the “ō” of blow, and the “ū” (“oo”) of blues are all low-frequency vowel sounds and, as such, “sound” the loss and loneliness the voice feels. All of the line’s vowels, too, with the exception of the short “uh” sound of the second syllable of gonna and the first syllable of away, are long vowels, which means, quite literally, that they sound themselves for a longer space of nano-time than short ones. So the emotions of the vowel sounds are inherently extended by the lengths of the syllables, an effect that’s doubled with the repetition of blow, and, in a different way, also doubled when Taylor sustains the second syllable of away off into the Blue Ridge.
There’s another reason, though, that the syllables in this line make it a singer’s dream: the consonants that come after the vowel sounds, instead of cutting them off, extend them even further, so the singer is free, more or less, to treat them as if they weren’t even there, or, better, as if they were vowel-enhancers, so to speak. Take the two n’s after the “o” (“aw”) of [g]onna. The letter “n” is referred to as a nasal consonant because when it occurs after a vowel the tongue, touching against the front of the palette right behind the teeth and remaining there a little, blocks the vowel sound and redirects it up into the nasal passages so that the whole skull reverberates with it. Consider this in contrast to, say, the letter “t,” which is called a dental, and which is also formed by the tongue touching against the front of the palette, also just behind the teeth. But “t” actually makes its own sound—not only before a vowel, but after it, too—by blocking and then percussively releasing the breath. The sound of the letter “t” terminates the sound of the vowel preceding it, replacing said vowel, whereas “n,” when coming after a vowel, doesn’t really make its own sound, or, more accurately, its sound is created out of the vowel sound, which it extends.
Similar deal with the “w” after the long “ō” of blow. “W” is such a vowel-friendly consonant that it is often classified as a semi-vowel. A look at the history of the letter reveals why. This history has a lot to do with the fact that when carving letters into granite, say, or limestone, or, even later, scratching them into wax, “u,” representing an “oo” sound, was a real pain in the gluteus to produce. Have you ever tried to make a “u” in stone with a hand-sledge and a chisel? I have, and it’s not fun. So they cheated a little and made the “u” in the form of what we now call a “v,” to which we assign a very different sound. “V” is much easier to chisel into stone, being two inversely angled line segments and all. When a word like, say, “veritas” was chiseled into an obelisk or pillar or something, or scratched into wax, it was pronounced “ueritas,” or, more precisely, “oo-eritas.” If, for public effect, you really extended the “oo,” shifting into the same word’s “ĕ” sound required what we now recognize as a “w” sound: “wŭ.” Eventually, as efficiency made over-extending “oo” less important than making the “wŭ” sound in order to continue with the syllable and word, a double “v” became the symbol for this transitional sound. When a “w” comes at the end of a word, though, especially right after a long vowel, it lends itself to its old sonic referentiality as an extended “oo,” a doubled “oo,” in fact: “oo-oo.” If the vowel before it is a long “ō,” of course, it blends right in and continues “inside” the sound of the “w,” as it were, to produce a sound something like “ō-oo-oo,” which, well, what better realization of a lonely and forlorn wind could there ever be? There’s only one way to one-up it, and that’s to sing it twice—as per J.T.
Thus, a brilliant long-vowel-i-ness subsists all the way through the line, right up until the end. For instance, the “aw” of all gets extended by the two “l” sounds in a way that is analogous to how the two “n” sounds (really one “n” given how quickly the word gets pronounced) extend the “aw” of [g]onna. “L” is called a liquid consonant because in pronouncing it the tongue hunkers way back in the back of the mouth where the most saliva is, curling down into it as if taking a bit of a bath. As with “n,” the tip of the tongue touches the palate behind the teeth, though a little farther back, and stays pressed against it so that the vowel continues to resonate without being cut off by a new sound.
The sibilant “s” sound at the end of blues is so soft, more like a “z” in fact, that, although strictly speaking it does have its own sound, it hardly obstructs the word’s extended moan, merely indicating in a softly windy way the final dying out of the sound wave.
And the “y” at the end of away is really more vowel than consonant, blending with the long “ā” to form a diphthong rather than a vowel-consonant combo: “ā-ee.”
In short, except for the stronger consonant sounds at the beginnings of some of the words—the hard “g” of [g]onna,” the expulsive “bl” sounds of blow and blues, even the more vowel-like “m” sound of my—the line is a long, lamenting flow of mostly low-, but also a few high-, frequency vowels that in and of themselves have little conceptual meaning but, as they work on the aural-neural system, give rise to an extended and powerful—and primal—feeling capable, depending on the susceptibility of the listener, of bringing real tears to the eyes.
Real tears, not fake ones—even though the listener isn’t the one whose lover has gone away and might even be very happily situated with a partner, living in a home or apartment somewhere, with nice pictures on the wall, and a cat, watching National Geographic videos, and generally enjoying their life. In its functioning through its sustained long vowel sounds as a sound-mimesis of a feeling, the line is capable of bringing into existence the actual emotion of loss in someone who has no other cause to feel it except hearing the line performed by a singer uniquely sensitive to its aural-emotional dynamics.
If you’re still reading after all that geeky deep-diving into the esoteria of language and sound, well, I thank you. It has probably given you some hard-earned insight into why, on Saturday night, Donna preferred some guy named Al in the back seat of his dad’s car to, well, me playing “Fire and Rain” up in my bedroom and thinking about poetry and music and the heightened emotions they arouse.
Perhaps you too would have preferred Al. After all, he talked about real things, exciting things, like football, say, or the best brand of ratchet wrench to use when installing a new cam or rocker arm shaft in your 1958 Lincoln Continental 430 V8 Convertible.
If there’s one thing Al wasn’t, it was boring.
In many ways, I too would have preferred Al to myself. After all, I love old cars.
The thing is, though, after my mom died those sorts of things lost their appeal for a while, and all I could get interested in was images of things: flying machines crashed in some meadow, or lonely backyards that would maybe someday fill with the first rays of sunrise again. Or the Blue Ridge Mountains, those empty valleys and silent forests. Or semi-symbolical images half-suggestive of an alternative realm of being in which two beautiful arms up in the sky might suddenly surround the sun to form a perfect circle of love.
In addition to visual images, certain sound images, too, were more attractive to my imagination. Roaring crowds in football stadiums, or high-powered engines exploding into life were less real to me than solitary voices on a porch somewhere singing their longing for lost love; or the sound of the wind soughing through the forest canopy; or maybe a high-flying eagle or falcon emitting one unanswered note above some misty valley or other. In short, in both the visual and the auditory realms, I preferred images of loss and longing, of loneliness and devastation, over images of power, and I suspect that was because, for the first time, I had been made to realize my powerlessness over death and loss.
Embracing, through visual- and sound- imagery, the irretrievability of someone else’s loss, making it my own, had at least the consolation of affirming the ideal qualities of what, and who, had been lost. The songs I listened to, the poetic images I embraced, the poetic sounds I embraced, were all mimetic enactments of the loss of an ideal—something called love. More importantly, perhaps, they were mimetic re-enactments of the lost ideal itself.
This is what poetry, like all art, does. This is the power of mimesis. Art’s imitation of a scene, a series of human sounds, a charged dramatic situation, gives birth, so to speak, to the ideal, not as an idea, but as a reality. The primitive regions of our brain, you know, are very much alive and well, no matter how rational and analytical about things we think we are. These regions pre-date our frontal lobes. In them we make no distinction between the images of things and the things themselves. When those parts of the brain are presented, for instance, with the image of a tiger, they have no question but that it’s a tiger, and up into a tree we go, unless our frontal lobes veto that move, pointing out it’s only a National Geographic video.
Likewise, if during that same video we hear the roar of a tiger, deep down and in spite of our geeky frontal lobes we’re quite sure it would be much better to get the hell up into a tree first and ask questions later.
At that very primary level of cognition, it’s all about survival.
On the happy side, neurologists assert that the reason people post pictures of their loved ones in their cubicles at work is not simply that the pictures remind them of their loved ones, but because at that more primal level those pictures are their loved ones and affect their limbic system in exactly the same way they would if their loved ones were right there with them, smiling and looking straight in their eyes. Even if those loved ones have died.
The same is true with music, or, say, tapes of ocean waves washing up on a beach. When we listen to, and hear, those things suddenly we are somewhere else feeling as we would were we actually there—which, as far as our limbic system is concerned, we are.
As for poetry, its unique and kind of spiritual mimetic effect is that it images—in the visual and, through the sound-play of vowels and consonants, the auditory imagination—something remembered as an ideal, a lost ideal, crucially, but present within the mimetic incantations of the poem.
By virtue of the poem’s meaning-system this becomes not just an ideal, but the ideal.
Beauty, love, the eternal, the true.
The ideal . . . which is for all intents and purposes just like a circle round the sun.