Here I am again folks, another blog post on the art of writing poetry.
This week - Sounds in Poetry
Poetry is an aural art form. (In both the definitions). Poetry is made for the ear. Here’s the first three and a half lines of Denise Levertov’s “Night on Hatchet Cove,” (fm; Poems 1960-1967 New Directions)
The screendoor whines, clacks
shut. My thoughts crackle
with seaweed-seething diminishing
flickers of phosphorus.
Read that aloud, slowly. I’ll wait. Don’t the ‘s’ sounds evoke an emotion? That emotion is helped along by the soft ‘w’ and ‘f’ sounds of the ‘whines,’ ‘weed,’ ‘flickers,’ ‘phosphorus.’ And the hard consonant sounds give it music: the ‘k’ of screen, clacks, crackle, flicker; the ‘d’ and ‘t’ of ‘door,’ ‘shut’ ‘thoughts.’ We can’t forget the great vowel sounds either: the soft ‘a’ of ‘clack’ and ‘crackle’; the long ‘e’ of ‘screen’ ‘seaweed’ ‘seethe,’ and maybe the best, the echo of the ‘thoughts’ and ‘phos.’
All these sounds with no pure rhyme. Let me repeat, with no pure rhyme. Yes, off rhyme but no exact rhyme. Ms. Levertov is using assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. The vowel sounds are the same the consonants change.
Her consonant repetition is called consonance, which is very similar to alliteration, but alliteration is only on the beginning of stressed syllables. Consonance is usually defined as consonants at the end of syllables.
There also is a use of consonants called dissonance, where the consonants are used to create a harsh sound. I don’t mean hard sounds. As in the Levertov example, hard sounds are not necessarily dissonance.
Strictly speaking consonants are the exact consonant sound but like the ‘s’ and the ‘f’ work well together above, different consonant sounds sound good to the ear when used together.
Let us delve briefly into the world of linguistics, to give you the families of sounds. They work together well, because of how they are pronounced in the mouth.
dentals – t,d,n – Example: Eating doughnuts for the first time.
labials – p, b – Ex: Anybody who drops a buttered bagel supposes somebody has a mop
gutturals – g,k (hard) c – Ex; loggers take big logs, create a forge to make smoke.
fricatives – f, v – Ex; her favorite shows give variety to her life
sibilants – s,sh,z,ch,zh – Ex: such shushing is only in the silence of the church
nasals – m, ng, nk – Ex: my demeanor longs to sink into realms of funk
liquids – l, r – Ex: spilled flour appears to hover forever midair
glides – y, w – flow on gray cloud flow on, fly yellow bird fly, I’ll stay below
All right, forgive my examples. I am a bit of a surrealist. Be careful using sounds. Don’t get carried away with one sound unless done for effect. Changing sounds at the turning or leaping points of poems can help the turn or leap.
Yes, meaning is important to a poem but sound has to be just as important. The consonant sounds give the poem the rhythm, the music. Meter helps, but meter is a minor player in music of poetry. Do you read poems aloud? If not try it. It does make a difference on how a poem affects you. And in the same note, do you speak your poem aloud when you’re writing it? I don’t see how you cannot. You have to read the poem aloud as you write it to make sure the sounds work.