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Susan PlettMaking Music With Your Words
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's eleventh column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

I have a genetically unfair advantage when it comes to memory. My paternal grandfather memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew at the age of 82 just to prove he could still do it. My great grandmother recited a long poem, “The Amen Corner,” for me the last time she saw me—I was eight, and she was 97. This genetic advantage coupled with a life-long love affair with words makes it very easy for me to commit things to memory.

Music to My Ears

In preparation for this month’s column, I compiled a list of lines or phrases from other people’s poetry that have stayed with me. Several of them were pieces I had chosen to memorize because they aroused an emotional response in me (for example, the first two lines of Billy Collins “Revenant” never fail to make me laugh). There are some, however, that have stuck even though I made no conscious effort to commit them to memory. A few examples:

“...hearing oftentimes/the still, sad, music of humanity/nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/to chasten and subdue” William Wordsworth, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

“bitten and blown into caves and coves,” a line from a poem written by a gentle retired man I once took a course with. I do not remember his name. I remember savouring his work.

“soft and silent, she swooped through the trees” Martin Waddell, from a children’s book called “Owl Babies.” I read this book to my children more times than I can count, partially because I wanted to read that one line out loud over and over again.

“anyone lived in a pretty how town/with up so floating many bells down” e.e.cummings

“…to follow knowledge like a sinking star/beyond the utmost bound of human thought” Tennyson’s "Ulysses"

Metrical Rhymed Lines

Those are just a few of the phrases that are music to my ears. The question is—what makes them musical?

One of the poems my grandfather recited over and over, in my living room, with a captivated audience of one, started out:

In the Dashty-Second Crashers was a Major Corker, who
Was remarkable for telling stories that were very seldom true

(Aliph Cheem, The Two Thumpers)

I memorized that one by remembering the end rhymes, and filling in enough beats to get to the next rhyme. (The poem itself was memorable because it was such great good fun, and because I adored my grandfather.) I later learned that this poem was written by a military man, and is written in regular metrical feet (although Mr Cheem’s prowess was entertaining story, not perfect scansion). When my husband encouraged me take up hiking, I used the rhythm in this poem to move my feet along when the going got rough.
It is important to note that end rhyme is merely one of many uses for rhyme in poetry. “up so floating” – there is an embedded syllabic rhyme with “so” and “flo” that adds whimsy at the same time as it pulls the momentum forward. (see also slant rhyme, and eye rhyme, to name just a few.)

Rhythm

The second skill that enhances the musicality of a piece is rhythm. Even in poetry that is not rhymed, a piece that has regular line lengths and rhythm creates its own music. Consider the sample (above) from Tennyson’s "Ulysses." It is written in iambic pentameter, and once you are a few lines into reading it, the rhythm is firmly fixed. The phrase “beyond the utmost bound” benefits from being embedded in the middle of a line that we know, on a visceral, and also conscious, level, must continue—this knowledge enlarges the territory of the imagined “utmost bound.”

Sound

The third element is the use of sound. The reason “bitten and blown into caves and coves” sprang to mind almost instantly as an example of musical poetry is the use of several different sound techniques.

a. alliteration: repeated consonant at the beginning of words. The rough rule of thumb is “no more than three close together” but a quick peek at Gerard Manly Hopkins "Windhover" with its “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” shows that rules can sometimes be broken with no detrimental effect.

b. repeated consonants sounds or consonance: bitten and blown into caves and coves.

c. vowel sounds: repeated long “o” in blown and coves adds music, as does the fact that blown, caves and coves all long vowel sounds. In the cummings excerpt, there are the repeated ow—not just in the end rhymes, but he also adds one in just before the end of the first line with “how town,” using internal rhyme in two consecutive words. He does this again in “so floating.” This is music that attracts us on a visceral level.

Repitition of the same vowel sounds, as in the examples above, is one way to achieve musicality; another is the manipulation of long and short vowel sounds. “Soft and silent, she swoops through the trees.” Many long vowels sounds, with their easy rhythm, makes this line just sing.

It can also be effective to alternate long and short vowel sounds, as in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

The only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.

d. Hard consonants and soft consonants: A soft consonant, such as "f" or "s," at the end of a word, will slide you easily into the next word, whereas a hard consonant, such as "d" or "p", will stop the energy. The Waddell excerpt demonstrates this effectively, and, to a lesser degree, so does the quote from Ulysses.

Assessing your poem's musicality

It can be tricky to assess the musicality of a poem that you’ve worked on for a long time. It is often helpful to read it out loud. Better yet, to ask someone else to read it aloud to you. Someone who is unfamiliar with the piece will not hear what you heard in your head when you put it on paper, and this can help to highlight places that the language is failing to create the music you heard.

Another approach I have used is to hum my poem. This forces me to pay attention to the syllable count and chosen line breaks, without the sometimes obscuring content of the actual words.

Sit with your piece, listen to how it breathes, and “give of your best to the Master.”

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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett