Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13

      Sounds are the last thing most newcomers think about while writing poetry and the first thing that a skilled editor seeks while reading poetry.  The first stanza/strophe may be all that such an editor needs to know whether or not the rest is worth examining.  A verser may be able to sustain interest through scintillating content, as a prose writer might, but insofar as poetic appreciation is concerned, even the most untrained ear will tune out if it doesn't detect pleasing sounds in the first few lines.  That is how important sonics are.

      A listener, even if not an English speaker, will hear repetitions in our poems:  rhythm/meter, lines (i.e. repetends), phrases (e.g. anaphora), words (e.g. identity, anadiplosis), syllables (e.g. rhymes), vowels (e.g. assonance) and consonants (e.g. consonance).  More than anything else, then, repetition is the difference between poetry and prose.  


      The sounds that characters and some groups of characters (e.g. "sh", "th", "kh", etc.) make are called "phonemes".  Every language has a set number of these.  English has 44.  These sounds make up syllables which, in turn, make up words and feet in verse.  Thus, phonemes are the building blocks of language and poetry.  These are divided into consonants, which involve a closure of mouth and/or tongue, and vowels, which are sounded by expelling air from an open mouth.  The repetition and pattern of consonantal (called "consonance") and vowel (called "assonance") sounds are as important as the repetition of similar syllables ("rhyme").  Alliteration occurs when sounds that begin stressed syllables, usually but not always at the beginning of words, are similar.  This is true whether they are vowels (e.g. ocean/aura, ask/reanimate), consonants (e.g. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers") or a combination of both (e.g. honest/awning, reconstitute/caustic).


      Consonants are measured in two dimensions:  time and substance.


      The faster consonants and vowels are sounded the quicker the pace of the poem.  If follows naturally that sections of a poem that constitute a buildup may use progressively faster consonants.  Periods of relaxation might be marked by longer consonant sounds.  We begin by looking at the various types of consonants, beginning with the fastest and working our way down to the slowest:

      As the name suggests, an "unvoiced plosive" occurs with an explosion of sound without help from the vocal chords.  The "t" in "top" and the "p" in "pot" are examples.  By contrast, a "voiced plosive" involves the vocal chords more:  the "b" in "bought" and the "d" in "dot", for example.  Plosives raise the level of excitement.  As a general rule, voiced sounds tend to take longer than unvoiced ones.

      "Glottals" are similar to plosives except that they originate further back in the mouth, somewhat like gargling.  The "k" in "kit" and the hard "g" in "get" are often used to underline strong negative emotions.

      "Unvoiced fricatives" involve a slower release of air than a plosive.  Sibilants like the "sh" in "ship" and the "s" in "sip" are unvoiced fricatives but so are the "f" in "fit", the "h" in "hip" and the soft "th" in "thin".  "Voiced fricatives" drag the vocal chords into the effort.  The "z" and "zh" sounds in "close" and "closure", the hard "th" sound in "the" and the "v" in "vim" can calm not only the pace but the mood of your poem.

       "Nasals" can be enunciated with the mouth closed.  These include the "m" in "mitt", the "n" in "knit" and the "ng" sound of "sing".  These can be elongated indefinitely, as in the Campbell's commercial:  "M-M-M good!"  The "m" and "n" tend to create a sense of relaxation but "ng" is often used to create the opposite effect.

       Like "w", the "r" is a special case.  It is a consonant (i.e. we say "a rip", not "an rip", just as we say "a whim" as opposed to "an whim") but if untrilled, as in North American English speech, "r" is a vowel sound.  By contrast, anyone who has heard a Scot trill an "r" will understand that it can be a long consonantal sound. 

       The sound of "l" (as in "liquid") involves pushing air past the tongue as it is held to the upper palate.  It connotes fluidity, relaxing a listener as a gentle mountain steam would.

       Among the slowest and harshest sounds are the "affricatives":  a cluster of consonant sounds slammed together into a cacophony:  the "ch" it "chip" and the "j" in "jest" (a sound so harsh that few other languages use it) can be used to shock a reader.

       Note:  You don't have to remember any of this nomenclature.  Just be aware of the concepts, after which you can let your ear do what your memory cannot.  That said, I recommend that you click here to read Rachel Lindley's definitive article, "The Sound of - um, well - Sound" on this subject.


       Consonant sounds can be described as "hard" or "soft".  In general, we want to map out our poems so that the harder/harsher sounds occur when we want excitement, softer sounds during more relaxing, contemplative or pastoral moments.  In this way our poem can resemble a symphony with the pleasing vibrations of cello, violin and wind instruments leading to the climactic brass, cymbals and gongs.

       It is important to note that consonants with vowels directly after them will be sounded more distinctly than those followed by another consonant sound.  Thus, the "g" in "go" will be more conspicuous than that in "glow".  The harder that ensuing consonant is the more it detracts from the sound of the first consonant.  The "p" in "play" is more pronounced than the ones in "stopped".  Similarly, consonants are the beginning of a word will be more salient than those at the end.  The "t" in "tore" is more prominent than the one in "rote" even if the word after "rote" begins with a vowel sound.

       Here is a list of consonants in approximate order from harshest to softest:

Sound       Example

j, g        judge
ch          chap
k, c        kin, cap
g           get
p           pet
t           tin
b           bin
d           din
zh, j       pleasure, jejeune
th          then
z           zen
s, c        sop, cede
v           vast
f           fast
sh          shop
th          thaw
ng          sang
h           hip
l           lip
r           rip
n           nip
m           mitt

      The Spanish "horta" or gargled "kh/ch" that we hear in "ojala", "Khartoum"  or "chutzpah" and the trilled "rr" of "perro" would both rank high on this list.


      If you open your mouth and give your tongue the day off the sounds you'll be able to make will be almost exclusively vowels.

      As with consonants, vowels occupy the dimension of time by being either long or short.  The first problem is that "long" and "short" have two entirely different usages, depending on whether we are speaking of phonics or sonics.  The "o" in "rote" is long in phonetic terms but doesn't take a particularly long time to say;  thus, it is of medium duration in sonic terms.  Conversely, grammarians call the "o" in "rot" short while prosodists call it long.  To avoid this confusion, we'll call vowels that take a long time to say "slow", quicker ones "fast".

      What about the "w" in "what"?  It is clearly a vowel sound--a very fast "oo" sound--but, unfortunately, English lexicologists didn't follow the Welsh example and allow "w" to be a true vowel (i.e. the only vowel in a word).

      Here is a list of vowel sounds in approximate order from fastest to slowest:

Vowel     Example

shwa      batter       - The "e" is a very fast "[c]oo[k]" sound.
i         kit               
w         when
e         pet
u         putt
oo, u     book, put
o         rote
e, y      peat, risky
u, oo     fruit, boot
a         cat
a         Kate          - Like a dipthong of "eh-ee" sounds.
i, y      kite, sky     - Like a dipthong of "ah-ee" sounds.
a, o      paw, pot
u         cute          - Like a dipthong of "ee-oo" sounds.

      True dipthongs such as "oi" (in "coil") and "ow" (in "cowl") are so slow as to constitute two syllables in some cases.

      As with consonants, slow vowels attract attention to themselves and, obviously, slow down the read.  In common speech we often elongate vowels for emphasis.  The guy who just cut us off in traffic isn't a "jackass", he's a "ja-a-acka-a-a-a-ass".  In close linebreaking decisions free versers and curginators will often break on the word with the longer vowel sounds.

      Like consonants, vowels do have substance.  The "a" in "cat" is more noticeable than the "i" in "kitty", maybe even more so than the longer "aw" sound in "caught".  For the most part, though, vowel sounds derive their substance from their duration.

      Vowel length plays a role in promotion and demotion of syllables.  Consider the third line of "Wintakan Eulogy", where the poet has to choose between "out to [sea]" and "to the [sea]":

We've come to where eternity
now stands, its gateway arched.

Another drop flows out to/to the sea
and leaves the land more parched.

      For most reciters the word after "flows" will become stressed.  Which is a better candidate for promotion?  "To the" or "out to" sea?  Both use the same consonant.  Because the word is going to be accented the poet goes with the longer vowel sound:  the dipthong "out".  Thus, we see the line as:

Another drop flows out to sea

The Repetition of Sounds

     Rhyme generally involves syllables in poetry but, in song, will often rely on assonance.  Alliteration, consonance and assonance usually refer to individual phonemes or combinations thereof that may be shorter than a full syllable.  Aside from adding a skeletal structure to your lines, alliteration, consonance and, to a lesser extent, assonance can create a psychological, topical or structural link between thematic words.  A structural link involves similarities between sounds near the end of one phrase, sentence or stanza and the beginning of the next.  For example, in "Looking for Lorca" Stanza #1 ends with the word "light" as Stanza #2 commences with "Let".  The repetition of a word or part of a word in this manner is a very effective rhetorical device called "anadiplosis".  In DPK's "Beans" we see:

Your face was
always saddest when you smiled.  You smiled as every
doctored moment lied.  You lie with
orphans' parents, long


     Consider these lines from Sara Teasdale's "There Will Come Soft Rains":

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire

     The repetition of "f's" at the beginning of "feathery fire" and "fence" are an example of alliteration.

   William Blake's "Tyger, tyger, burning bright" is one example of alliteration, but so are "premeditated meddling in Mexico" and "Ask another anteater!"

     As we mentioned in the previous article ("Forms"), an eon ago alliteration played much the same role in Anglosaxon accentual poetry as rhyme does in today's accentual-syllabic verse. 

     Consider this excerpt from "Ekaterinburg", a poem about the execution of the Romanoffs:

In this room
of bullet and body,

in this room
of bayonet and bodice,

in this room
there was no bog
or lime

     The reference to "bog or lime" comes out of the blue to anyone unfamiliar with history, but if we link "bog" with all of the other "b-words" we should infer that the bullet-ridden, bayonetted bodies were [eventually] thrown into a bog [and, at some point, covered with lime].


     Any repetition of consonant sounds within words is "consonance".  Overconsonance, especially if it involves unvoiced plosives (e.g. "Peter Piper picked a peck...") or fricatives ("She sells sea shells..."), can create unwelcome tongue-twisting humour.  Properly used, though, even overconsonance can create a wryly dramatic effect:

Twin tumbleweeds roll past and part
the dirt to sketch in chicken tracks,
so soon obscured: convectional art
mandalas till the winds

     The harsh "t", "p", "ch" and "k" sounds are blended with some sibilance to create an almost absurd level of tension before we run into the ironic one-word line:  "relax".  (The linebreak before "relax" also serves to highlight the pun on "till the winds".)

     Consider the psychological link that the consonance of "d" sounds produces here: 

The brown skinned girl
views dark July
days through a chador,
her body reduced

     The string of "d-words" (skinned...dark...days...chador...body reduced) creates a parataxic subtext, suggesting that the chador may have something to do with these "dark...days" and with her "body" being "reduced".  A reader would likely overlook this entirely because, as with poetry in general, this needs to be heard.  A listener could miss this consciously but it will hit their subconscious like a bus.


     Assonance involves the repetition of vowel sounds.  In the mournful "Why We Never Met Grandpa" the audience encounters this quatrain:

A mobile home, a tortoise god,
her snapshot caught a gray adieu.
Too old for Rome, she'd hoped to plod
along the beach on Peleliu.

     These four lines of iambic tetrameter contain no less than seven "oh" sounds ("mobile", "home", "tortoise", "old", "for", "Rome", "hoped") and seven "aw" sounds ("god", "snapshot", "caught", "adieu", "plod", "along", "on").  Could the poet be tapping into the fact that "oh" and "aw" are common expressions of grief?

Distance, Proximity and Prescience

     "Distant" repetitions of sounds involves spacing most of the iterations apart.  "Proximate" repetition suggests a closer clustering such that the recurrences are bound to draw attention (e.g. the overassonance in "the cat in the hat came back").  To avoid being conspicuous it may be good technique to either "presage" the repetitions with an iteration beforehand or "confirm" them with a reiteration later.

Come autumn, combines comb the fields
to harvest gold canola oil
for toast before November yields
its cold.

     The hard "c" alliteration of "Come autumn, combines comb" crowded into the first four words are confirmed subsequently via "canola" and, later still, with "cold".  Compare this to "Trophies":

before leather nights
bring the button-on-washboard slide

      If the second line contained the only instances of "b" sounds it would seem like the poet said "time for some of that fancy alliteration stuff".  The presence of a "b" in the previous line makes the alliteration less protrusive.


      What happens when all of this comes together?  What does perfection look like?  Let us examine these remarkable lines from "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by Didi Menendez:

     You wrote your verses
     with your veins,
     cold against the wall.

      The assonance of "oh" sounds ("wrote", "your" twice, "cold") and alliteration of "v's" are obvious enough.  Let's not overlook the rhythm:  hard-driving iamb, skipping a beat only where our hearts might, at the comma after "veins".  Even before we factor in the startlingly wonderful trope we can see why, IMHO, these three lines rank among the finest written in the last half century.

     Notice how all of the vowels are fast until we get to the first word that will surprise the reader:  "veins".  Assuming we pronounce "against" as "ag-enst", we don't see another slow vowel sound until we get to the word that informs us of the execution by firing squad:  "wall".  Like a "slow traffic" sign on a highway, these vowel sounds (along with the enjambment) force us to decelerate and examine those critical words more carefully.  Through their vowels these words underline themselves.

      Look, too, at the consonants.  Those in the first two lines are either soft or softened (i.e. the "t" in the end of "wrote" is less pronounced than in, say, "tore").  This sets us up for the second surprising word, the time-shifting "cold".  Just as "too much emphasis is no emphasis at all", the hard sounds in "cold" work best because they are surrounded by so many softer ones. 

      A shout seems louder in a library than a crowded stadium.

Addendum:  Scansion Maps and Sonic Graphs

     If we've been writing for a while we likely have a poem that, judging from critiques, fared better than we expected.  We also have a poem that met with a disappointing reception.  Chances are good that the answer lies in the rhythm(s) and sounds.  What we need, then, is a way of analyzing scientifically what our audience is evaluating instinctively.

Scansion Maps

     A scansion map involves highlighting our stressed syllables.  One way to create a scansion map is to print your poem out and circle the accented syllables, underlining any lightly accented syllables.  Another, paper-saving method is to bold the stressed syllables and italicize the lightly accented ones before hitting "Preview" (don't post!) them using the interface here.  For example, here is a scansion map of that marvelous sentence from "There are Sunflowers in Italy

     You wrote your verses
     with your veins,
     cold against the wall.

     This will allow you to see if your words are forming rhythm(s).  Scansion maps may not be necessary for verse, since you are already forced to pay strict attention to meter, but such visuals can be extremely helpful if writing vers libre.

Sonic Graphs

     Sonic graphs are useful whether you are writing verse or free verse.  The method is the same as scansion maps except that you have to do it twice:  once for your vowels and once for your consonants.  For vowels, you might circle/bold the long vowel sounds and underline/italicize the medium length ones.  This will give you:

     You wrote your verses
     with your veins,
     cold against the wall.

     For consonants, you might bold/circle the harder sounds and italicize/underline the softened ones.  This gives you:

     You wrote your verses
     with your veins,
     cold against the wall.

     Examine the results objectively.  Are your vowels lengthening and your consonants hardening at the spots you wish to emphasize?  For the experienced ear these considerations, along with other elements of sound, can make or break your poem.

     Once you have your outline in place you can choose words with sounds that reflect the mood and pace at that point in the narrative.

     Here's some good news:  read this article about sonics, this one about scansion, sprinkle in some jargon and, in the space of a few hours, you will become more knowledgeable on the subject of poetry technique than most editors, contest judges and English or MFA graduates.

     I wish that were hyperbole.

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