15 July 2014

Untangling the Roots

Joan Hanna

Untangling The Roots

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my roots as a poet.  I don’t so much mean how or when I began to write, it’s more about the idea of how language has captivated me ever since I can remember. I can cite the usual first books and first poems that clicked with some sort of rhythmic repetition, but this was different, this was more of a fascination with sound and movement and how the collision of words attracts alike words that connect with other words. .

My relationship to language has many levels. I was raised in a partially bi-lingual home where my mother and grandparents spoke Italian but the kids spoke only English and were not fluent in another native language. Even though we were not able to carry on bi-lingual conversations, we could easily understand the Italian conversations going on around us enough to know what was being said.  The pronunciations, rhythms and romantic lilt of the language seeped into us anyway. I began to listen to the speech patterns all around me, trying to figure out the meanings of so many unknown words. Even though we lived in a mostly Italian neighborhood, there were many different dialects and regions of origin, and all of these pronunciations and rhythms had differing pauses and stresses than the ones I heard at home. This too became fascinating.

What began as simply wanting to understand what was being spoken around me became a hunger for understanding words and their origins. I began to compare word meanings and realized there were so many words that had similar meanings in a much more significant way than a mere synonym could ever provide. This immersion into speech patterns and meanings became an invaluable asset when I began writing serious poetry.  It was the key to playing with internal rhyme and assonance in the same way that I had done very naturally when I was a young girl. Only now it became a functional tool I could use to enhance language and imagery.

In City Dog (Northwestern University Press, 2009), W. S. Di Piero states:

What my culture did give me was a sense—a tactile, mineral sense—of language as the embodiment of contingency. And I think I also absorbed other qualities that served me as a poet, a tenacity and a stupefied willfulness to make words answerable to the densities of consciousness.
But language, of course, wasn’t so nicely patterned or cut to satisfying forms. That’s not how I experienced it. It was a swampy, crazily shadowed and veined with unintelligible matter. Its flashes and zigzags and curls pulled me in.

It was this same “swampy…unintelligible matter” that called out to me from our home and neighborhood. It was this sense, coupled with the monotonous recitation of poetry and prayers in Catholic school, that readied me for the alliteration and word play in Poe’s “tintinnabulation of the bells bells bells” and the movement and rhythms of language that so easily rooted fear in Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

Now, when I revise poetry, because these language patterns rarely work their way into the first draft, I try to channel those voices and rhythms into my lines. I try to emulate that cacophony of language, dialect and regional snarl to give a kind of verve to the lines and rhythms that are already so engrained in my own unconscious speech.  I find it comforting, and in a strange way fitting, that these places and voices from so long ago that find their way into my poetry are written from the same “swampy” language that already echoes within me. It’s as if the place I am writing from and the people that I write about could not be fully or poetically realized without this caldron of language created in our day-to-day existence. 

Joan Hanna has published poetry, creative nonfiction, book reviews and essays in various online and print journals. Her poetry chapbook, Threads, published by Finishing Line Press, was named a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Hanna holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. She is an Adjunct Professor, teaching creative writing at Rowan University and is also Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and Assistant Editor, Nonfiction/Poetry for r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal. Follow her at her personal blog Writing Through Quicksand. (www.writingthroughquicksand.blogspot.com)


  1. wonderful piece! I felt the same way growing up, not bilingual but understanding swear words and songs and patterns in Portuguese--