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Violet Nesdoly PhotoThe Sound of a Poem
Copyright©2009 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our fifteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This is the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky.” Don’t you just love it? But do you know what it means? Of course not—it’s nonsense. But that doesn’t seem to matter, does it?

“The sound of poetry is clearly a source of pleasure. Syllables arranged in a harmonious pattern are satisfying and pleasing even if they mean little or nothing,” says Margaret Ryan.1

“Our ears prick up for the pleasure of listening to interesting sounds,” reiterates Frances Mayes.2

Of all the writing genres, poetry comes closer to music than any other. “Poetry is music in words,” says Dr. Fuller.3

Whether you’d characterize it as music or not, I’m sure you would agree that poetry is exquisitely sensitive to sound. “The noise a poem makes is part of its meaning,” (Frances Mayes4).

In this column, we’re going to look at some of the sound tools in a poet’s toolbox. We will separate them into two categories: the texture of words and the repetition of sounds.

The Texture of Words

Each word feels different in the mouth and on the tongue as we say it. The sounds of the various alphabet letters add music and percussion when words are spoken, read or recited aloud. Here are some word texture elements to take into account as you write and revise your poems.

1. Variety in the alphabet
We form words in any language using breath, vocal cords, teeth and tongue. Students of speech analyze and name the kinds of sounds made. In English they group letters of the alphabet that cause similar sounds by the felt quality of each letter's sound. Thus we have vowels and consonants as well as groups of consonants called semivowels (e.g. f, s, m), aspirates (e.g. h, j, x), liquids (e.g. l, m, n), and mutes (e.g. t, p, k).

For an example of the difference in feeling achieved by using different letters of the alphabet, look at two ways of asking someone to stop making noise: "hush" and "shut up." In "hush" the breathy 'h', the soft 'u' and the gentle 'sh' make for a very different feel and emotional color than the words "shut up" with their abrupt mute endings.

Awareness of the felt and aural qualities of words is important to you as a poet because using the physically right word reinforces your poem's meaning. "Sounds differ. Sounds matter," says Mary Oliver.5

2. Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia are words that sound like what they mean. Words like fizz, giggle, slither, crunch and dozens more would qualify. Such words add aural texture as well as meaning.

3. Euphony and cacophony
Of course combinations of words also have texture. When the texture of a line, stanza or poem is smooth and pleasing, we say it has euphony. The use of repeating vowels and smooth consonants (l, m, n, y and w) helps achieve euphony.

When a line feels and sounds rough and coarse we say it has cacophony. Tongue twisters like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" would be an example of cacophony.

The goal for the poet is not to write only one or the other, but to put words together in such combinations that the texture and sound of the words enhance the poem's meaning.

The Repetition of Sounds

“We take rhyme and repetition so much for granted in poetry that it seems odd even to question why they’re used,” says Frances Mayes. “The common property of both is recurrence of sound. Both give pleasure. We like sounds that strike and chime and slide by each other. We respond to the here-it-comes-again refrain.”7

Marvin Bell describes repetition in a poem another way. He says, “A poem listens to itself as it goes.”6

Our ears notice and pay attention to repeating sounds. Repetition is a powerful musical force in poetry both old and mew. Here are some types of repetition to use in your poetry.

1. Alliteration
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at several points within one or more lines.

Example: “She's looking, looking for the Lamb, my Son.”

(This and following examples are taken from “Looking for the Lamb” by Karen Winterburn.)

Because of alliteration’s memorable qualities, you will see it used in all kinds of places—speeches, sermons, advertisements, sayings, and mottoes—as well as poetry. Here are some things to keep in mind when using alliteration.

• There are no rules about using it. Effective use depends on the poet’s ear. Pace it carefully, being aware that after a certain amount of time, a consonant ceases to resonate.

• Three repetitions of a sound often feel more natural than two, but you risk annoying your reader with five or more repeats. As well, too much alliteration can form tongue twisters.

• Use alliteration as a sound effect, to link associated words, tighten a poem’s structure and formalize language.

2. Assonance
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds at several points within one or more lines.

Example: "till Truth untie the lie tied at the start."

For the poet who eschews the in-your-face effect of alliteration, assonance is a much subtler type of repetition. It also provides many opportunities to enhance the musicality of your poem.

3. Consonance
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning and in the middle of words within a line or lines.

Example: "silence long endured, leap down from his lair,"

4. Rhyme
Rhyme is a correspondence of sounds in two or more words.

          The thicket-ram, the Pesach blood declare 
           the lover We betook ourselves to spare

Rhyme and poetry have been linked for eons. Despite rhyme’s long use, its effect remains powerful and mysterious. Types of rhyme are legion. We’ll define some of the most common.

Pure rhyme (also called full, true, perfect rhyme): the initial sounds differ, the rest of the word is identical: hill/pill, heart/cart. Pure rhymes at the end of lines give clarity and conciseness.

          silence long endured, leap down from his lair,
          speak comfort to his bride, her burden share:

Slant rhyme (also called near, approximate, embryonic, half, imperfect, oblique, off, partial, part, paraphone): inexact rhymes. These, in turn, are broken into several groups:

• Consonant rhymes: the final consonant is the same, the vowels differ: bells/pulls.

          expects You: grieves, pines for the heart she's won.
          She's waiting, waiting for the Word to stun

• Assonant rhymes: the vowels are the same, the final consonants differ: gate/sake

• Unaccented syllable rhymes: rhymes that fall on the weak syllable of multi-syllable words: flower/tatter.

The effect of using slant rhyme is to cause feelings of uneasiness and tension.

End rhyme: rhyming words placed at the ends of successive lines. When an end rhyme is followed by a punctuation mark, we say it is end stopped. Such a rhyme helps make the line feel crisp and like a unit. It draws attention to the rhyming word and emphasizes its music and meaning.

          silence long endured, leap down from his lair,
          speak comfort to his bride, her burden share:

Sometimes, though, the poem reading is meant to spill over past the end-rhyme and on to the next line. A lack of punctuation may signal that the reading continues. This is called enjambment. It de-emphasizes the line as a unit and gives a tripping, breathless, rambling effect.

          I run! Your Word made Flesh, your Mercy speeds
          to soothe
, to woo this bride, the lie outsmart,
          as Flesh made Lamb takes on her wound and bleeds.

Internal rhyme: Two or more rhyming words occurring in the same or nearby lines. Internal rhyme occurs in free verse as well in poems with rhyme and meter. Its effect is to spread the poem’s music throughout the line, adding another layer of sound.

           She's looking, looking for the Lamb, my Son.
           The thicket-ram, the Pesach blood declare

Though rhyme has fallen out of favor with modern poets, it continues to appeal to many readers. Note how many poems written for children use rhyme.

There are cons to using rhymes. When the choice of rhyming words is obvious and predictable, poems easily sound cliché. Rhyming poems suffer the risk of sounding old-fashioned, contrived and unnatural.

But using rhyme also has advantages. It can set a powerful tone and its clever use throughout a poem can enhance the sound and meaning of the entire piece. Combined with meter, it definitely adds melody to the beat. And there’s nothing like the need for just the right rhyming word to stretch your vocabulary.

Things to remember when using rhyme:

1. When you begin a poem with rhymes in a particular rhyme scheme, the reader expects that you to continue in that manner.

2. Rhyming couplets tend to clang. The farther apart rhyming words appear, the fainter their repetition will sound.

3. Take care not to twist the word order of normal speech to accommodate a rhyme.

4. Make an effort to use the unexpected, versus the expected rhyming word.

5. Use a rhyming dictionary to alert you to rhyme possibilities and to help you choose words with the best rhyming potential.

Poetry Sound Check

Try some of these activities to get a sense of how your poetry sounds.

1. Read your poems aloud as part of the writing and revision process.

2. Ask a friend or family member to read one of your poems aloud to you. Pay attention to where the reader stumbles. Try substituting different words in these places.

3. Record yourself reading your poems. Listen without copies of the poems in front of you, focusing on the sounds.

Coming November 1:
We'll explore the villanelle, a form poem in which you'll get to use many of the sound tools described above.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly


[1] Margaret Ryan, How to Write A Poem (Franklin Watts, Danbury Connecticut, 1996), 84.
[2] Frances Mayes, The Discovery of Poetry (Harcourt Inc., New York, 2001), 25.
[3] Dr. Fuller, quoted by Ryan, 81.
[4] Mayes, 26.
[5] Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Inc., New York, 1994), 19.
[6] Marvin Bell, quoted in Poet's Market 2004 (Writer's Digest Books, 2003), 124.
[7] Mayes, 158.