SunWinks! January 25, 2015: Sound Decisions

SunWinksLogoBeloved SunWinkers:

He’s not one of those important figures like Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, so I only just ran across the news that Mark Strand died November 29 at the age of 80. He’s been my poetry God for more than 40 years. I still have his chapbook Reasons For Moving, requested from and inscribed by my grandmother for my 20th birthday. The peripatetic Professor Strand was a Pulitzer winner and Poet Laureate, and exerted a singular and major influence on the American poetry of the latter half of the 20th century. His spare, surreal, restrained, hauntingly empty voice is distinctive and inimitable. I’m going to go have a good cry now. BRB

This week, the subject is the music of poetry, the sonority of language, the sound of the words. As Edward Hirsch says, “The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry.” I dare say this is a singularly important aspect of not just modern but all poetry which is often neglected by beginners and casual poets.

The sounds of words add to the pleasure and richness of poetry just as the texture of food adds to the pleasure of eating, or the texture of music—vigorous or placid, the personality of each instrument, the mood evoked by the harmonic tonality—is an indispensable part of the composer’s art.

I’ve chosen not to concentrate on one single sound device at a time. The sound of the language is not so easily compartmentalized. Instead, I will ask you to read some poetry, read it out loud, and think about how the sound of the language reinforces the poem’s meaning.

Look for:

Alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds, which may or may not be at the beginning of the word. The nature of the consonant, harsh or soft, playful or sibilant (whispery) can enrich the meaning of the words, set an aural tone that coheres with the theme or visual setting, and add to a sense of momentum.

Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds. A more subtle form of alliteration, if you will, assonance can add to the sense of movement or lend an air of formality.

Internal rhyme: rhyming words inside one or more lines. These can give the language a sense of rhythm and momentum.

Approximate rhyme: words (notably end-rhymes—at the ends of lines) which don’t rhyme exactly, but are similar-sounding. They may have different vowels but end with the same consonants (bell, fall), or they may have the same vowel sound but similar but not identical consonant endings (chip, skiff). Approximate rhymes can add to a sense of musical structure without calling attention to itself and sabotaging the momentum the way a too-predictable exact rhyme can.

Repetition: the exact repetition of words or phrases can add a powerful sense of rhythm, intensity, or impart a singing quality to the language.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy is a bitter, bombastic rant comparing the narrator’s father to a Nazi officer, or perhaps Hitler himself. She invokes images such as the swastika, jackboots, barbed wire, locomotives headed for Auschwitz. But Plath’s masterly use of the sounds of the language add so much more to the poem’s power. The avalanche of hard, thick consonants almost sounds like German (she also throws in some actual German). The pulsing, pounding rhythm created by the internal rhymes, the alliteration, the repetition, reinforces the sense of a headlong, out-of-control outpouring of white-hot anger. Reading this is like chomping down on a mouthful of unshelled walnuts.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak…

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew…

The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you…

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe…

Mark Strand

Mark Strand

Other fine examples for study of poetic sound devices:

The Way It Is by Mark Strand

I toss all night
in the cold unruffled deep
of my sheets and cannot sleep…

You can almost hear the rustling of the sheets. Note also the assonance of the “ee” sounds.

My neighbor marches in his room,
wearing the sleek
mask of a hawk with a large beak…

Strand uses alliteration of the “K” sound (ending, not beginning the words) for a strident effect. These aural effects, employed deftly and without calling attention to themselves, are all too easy to miss unless you are looking for them and—at least in your head—reading them out loud.

Words For The Wind by Theodore Roethke

Love, love, a lily’s my care,
She’s sweeter than a tree.
Loving, I use the air
Most lovingly: I breathe;
Mad in the wind I wear
Myself as I should be…

what if a much of a which of a wind by e.e. cummings

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer’s lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)

Both these exuberant poems use copious alliteration, repetition, rhyme, internal rhyme, and vowel rhyme to create irresistible, frolicking music. Note also cummings’s four-pulse lines, particularly rollicking when the “feet” are dactyls, as in the opening line. (I say “feet” because this is accentual verse—the line rhythm is deployed in pulses rather than a fixed scheme of syllables and metric feet.)

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer’s lie;

We’ve looked at onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition. We’ve discovered there are many ways to rhyme words beside exact rhymes at the ends of lines. What’s the point? Are we just fiddling with linguistic Tinker Toys to impress our audience?

If you consider yourself a poet, if you feel compelled to write something called a poem, perhaps it’s because you have something to say that cannot be described in prose. Something that can only be understood and experienced on a subconscious level, or on a feeling level, or on a metaphorical level. Something magical.

We have seen that modern poetry accomplishes this sort of oblique, sneaky communication through the use of images, symbols, metaphors, appeals to our five senses, appeals to our shared cultural experience, and unexpected connections. But our poetry will not be as good or as effective as it could be until the sound of the language

  • is consistent throughout the piece,
  • is consonant with and reinforces the meaning and mood of the piece, and
  • is as much a pleasure to listen to and read out loud as it is to read on paper.

The Prompt:

Write a short poem (not too short—I’m thinking 10-30 words) on a pleasant, or pastoral (nature), or hopeful theme. Using the devices discussed in this and other columns, as well as the sonorities of the words themselves, polish your poem until the sound of the poem supports and reinforces its meaning and sense of completeness.

Now write another poem about an unpleasant, ominous, or violent theme. Make the language of the poem reflect the violence and unpleasantness of the meaning.

Alternate Prompt:

Analyze one of the poems cited or another of your choosing in which the sound of the language makes an evident contribution to the sense of the poem. (If you choose Roethke’s “Words For The Wind”, you might want to limit yourself to the first section.) Look for the devices we talked about, but don’t stop there. Tell us how the sound of the poem helps convey its meaning.



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© 2015 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.



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