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The Music of Poetry

Kimberly Johnson’s poetry brings out the music in language.

portrait of Kimberly Johnson

“I just want to be a rockstar, and I can’t,” Professor Kimberly Johnson (Poetry) lamented with a smile at the November 18 English Reading Series. An accomplished poet and professor of English, she nevertheless wryly admitted that she nurses unrealized musical aspirations. “I’m stuck with words, so I have to have them be my instruments.”

With words as her instrument, Johnson has an impressive body of work: she has published four books of original poetry, several translations of classic works, and numerous works of criticism. The majority of what she read at her lecture came from her most recent book of poetry, Fatal, published earlier this year.

“[Fatal] is a book that I started writing in about 2016 as I started to feel that I was in danger of losing a bunch of things that seemed important to me,” Johnson said. Her kids were growing up, her spouse had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she felt “conscious of all those different kinds of losses, the ways that we as humans are conditioned to one loss after another.” Described as “her most personal collection yet,” Fatal is Johnson’s way of investigating and dealing with these different kinds of losses in her life.

But the resulting poetry is not bleak or depressing: especially as read by Johnson, the poetry in Fatal is carried along by rhythm and musicality.

Nor are her poems in Fatal confined to dealing overtly with loss or death. One of her poems, titled “Formulary,” for example, was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece and conveyed the vivid imagery of the Renaissance painting in Johnson’s musical cadence. It describes a lamb that is “lavish with blood in matter red” and a choir that is “berubied, embroidered, unsomber as the loot tuned to your organ’s lustrous umber.” 

Following her reading, Johnson discussed how it isn’t just the words themselves but the component sounds of those words that convey meaning in poetry. “There are sounds that are more and less embodied, or that generate in the reader more and less awareness of their embodiment,” she said. “Also, I love all consonants. All of them. The more the better.”

No doubt it takes a poet’s sensibilities to love a consonant for the feelings it evokes. But perhaps it takes a musician’s ear to love a consonant simply for the way it sounds.

Johnson’s poetry and other writing can be found here. Her reading marked the final regular installment of the semester before the Paxman Student Reading, held on December 2. Tune in for past and future readings at the English Reading Series website.