Hell's Bells: Notes on Tone

Mary Ruefle

Spring 2019

In early spring, in Croatia, old men and young men get up in the dark and get dressed in sheepskins, they don huge sheepskin masks and around their waists they tie giant sheep-bells. They proceed to parade through remote villages, making a racket. They are the Halubian bell-ringers, and their job is to ward off the evil spirits of winter so that the benevolent spirits of spring can arrive safely. This is their warm welcome, a ritual no less bizarre than writing a poem.

Here we are in early spring. We have survived the winter. Some of us; those who have not are not, strictly speaking, here.

Sooner than you think, it will be summer. Last summer I went back to a state park I had not visited in twenty-five years; I wanted, suddenly, to swim in the lake which is its centerpiece. And so I went, but left after fifteen minutes, without swimming, though I sat on a towel in the grass staring at the lake. Something was missing. It took me those fifteen minutes to figure it out—the old concession shack was no more, it had been shut down. And though I loved the sound of splashing water and airborne shouts, what I loved most was the sound of the little bell that rang every time a kid went into or came out of the concession shack, opening or closing its screen door. Kids in wet suits who went in to buy Creamsicles and came out licking them as the orange and white goo dripped. The bell! The bell! I missed the constant sound of that dinky bell, and my heart was broken. The sound of that bell was gone forever.

You see, I am not really interested in tone; I am interested in bells.

Here’s something intriguing: when I asked poets under the age of fifty what tone was (in a poem) they all said more or less it was the contextual inflection or attitude that helped determine meaning in a poem. When I asked poets over the age of fifty, they all said more or less that tone was a presence that was helplessly itself. I am not pitting these groups against each other, for both answers are relevant and meaningful, but being over fifty I do gravitate toward the helpless presence of a voice. At the same time, there are instances of the other I find riveting.

On the day of the total eclipse of the sun in August 2017, a group of people in Oregon standing under the direct path of the solar event cheered and shouted during the minutes of totality. Cheered and shouted as if it were the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. A group of people in Idaho, witnessing the same event, went dead silent in unison. I take these as two tones in response to the identical subject. The event was the subject, and the response was the tone. What would you have done? To which group do you belong?

One older poet I asked about tone said, “Tone? My inner ear senses it, it’s just a feeling. There are a lot of writers I can’t read because I don’t yet have a sense of their tone. It’s not a criticism, it just means I don’t have the immediate affinity I have with someone like, say, Vallejo. And he’s one among a hundred.”

What is Vallejo’s tone, I asked, and he said, “I’ve never tried to put it into words. It’s in my ear. I used to say about Vallejo that I felt the poem was handed to me on a silver platter—it felt, sounded like a gift. With other writers, I sometimes feel like I am supposed to give them something. I know I’m not, but it can feel that way.”

Does that have to do with the poet, or with you, I asked. “It’s a two-way street. An example for me is Borges. For some reason, I’m not there yet. Other people are hearing him—his tone—in a way I can’t. Maybe it’s overhearing a heart. For myself, as a writer, if I can get in touch with a tone on any given day, I can write. If I can’t, I don’t have much luck accommodating other ways or skills I might have—a tone has to come first. My advice to young writers is to go back to writers you couldn’t ‘hear’ five or ten years back—something in the personal time that has passed may allow you to hear them when you couldn’t five or ten years ago. It’s a nice surprise.”

Another older writer I asked said to me, “Not that many years ago we did not speak on and on about death in our letters, but now we do, and I call that a change in tone.”

A change of season is a change of tone.

Another friend made this offhand comment in a letter: “I decided to reread Austerlitz in French, and it’s so interesting how Sebald’s tone remains the same, even in a different language. I recognize him, very much his own tone, different, say, to Virginia Woolf, who I think of in the same class.”

The poet Bill Olsen once told me his most prized possession is a brass cowbell which came from his great-grandmother in North Denmark; it’s round and baseball-sized with some worn colored floral inlay. It rises to a knob for roping and tapers to a claw-shape at the bottom. He uses this bell to call his first class meeting to order, and it silences them; he points out that he is calling them to order, that is, silence, for silence is the order poetry calls for.

I thought that was a beautiful ritual, and it reminded me that years ago I was asked in an interview how I would teach tone, and I didn’t have a thing to say because it was nothing I had ever thought about or could imagine teaching, so I blurted out (as I am wont to do), “Oh, I would just bring a bell to class and ring it.”

Mary Ruefle is the author of, most recently, My Private Property. She is the recipient of numerous honors, including this year’s Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry.

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