Exploring the Meaning of Language and Music in Poetry



by Aaron Beatty

Austen Riggs Center Erikson Scholar, Annie Rogers, PhDThis year’s Winter Chats and Lecture series at Riggs (open to staff and patients) began with the music of the written language; current Erikson Scholar, Annie Rogers, PhD, professor of psychoanalysis and clinical psychology as well as a watercolor painter and published poet, shared some of her own poems, spoke about her creative process and led us through an engaging and evocative group writing exercise during her talk, “Poetry: Writing into the Unknown.” 

Dr. Rogers began her talk by reading a selection from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Some Words Inside Words” from his book Anterooms (2010): 

        In every ice cube there’s a cub, and so
        It sometimes happens that a cub will grow
        Inside the freezer of a Frigidaire,
        Until it is a full-sized polar bear.
        What happens then? Well, opening the door,
        It steps into the kitchen with a roar
        And lumbers through the house, fierce, white and fat,
        Turning down every single thermostat.

In doing so, she framed the rest of the evening as an exploration of words, where they come from and where they lead us in our writing and what kind of meaning we can glean from them in the process. The poems Dr. Rogers shared were remarkably diverse in their structure, subject matter and composition. And yet they all were attentive to the music of language in a way that made the poems accessible and compelling. 

Dr. Rogers talked about nothingness, silence and the notion of things being erased as a driving force behind why she writes. Her poem, “Paint by Numbers” opens: The work on the page begins a blizzard/ You fill in all the spaces and once they are filled/ the scene is weightless, lifted up by the wind. In a few of the poems Dr. Rogers read, she remarked that the poem she was reading had been, in some cases, 10 years in the making; the meaning of the poem uncovered itself through the editing process. In one instance, what began as a sestina evolved into an entirely separate form – it was the form, however, that initially brought words and music to her idea. Then, over time, the form became less important in the poem, revealing the poem to be something else entirely. 

In an illustrative moment, Dr. Rogers shared with us a Moleskine notebook of hers in which she jots down sketches and drawings along with brief one-line descriptions.    As an exercise, she took one of her completed notebooks and compiled most of the lines into a poem. The process not only produced a cohesive poem, but also brought forth repeated themes, words and ideas that Dr. Rogers had not been consciously aware of as repeated. 

The group created poems from a structured exercise that involved eight folded lines, four repeating words: cloth, angle, moth, tangle, and a little dog that followed us home.  Each person came away with a poem to keep or to work further.

In truth, words can take us in unexpected directions sometimes; and sometimes we choose the direction. Either way, the result is the construction of meaning of some kind, either for ourselves or for others: a communication about our shared human condition.