I like to think of poetry as a balance between sound and meaning, though not necessarily in exact measure. Think of a seesaw on a playground. A child and an adult can balance on a seesaw, even though they’re different sizes. So too, sound and meaning can wiggle around to find the best positions to balance each other in a poem.
You probably have a pretty good idea of the meaning in your poems: the things you want to say, which you hope your reader will understand. But since formal poetry has become somewhat unfashionable, we don’t talk about sound as much as we used to. Poems are often ideas or feelings spilled out on the page and chopped into line breaks at the places where we would naturally pause for breath. These can be wonderful poems, but you may also want to play with using the sound of language to amplify meaning in your poetry or cause tension between meaning and the sound.
This brief series will give you some tools you may want to use in your poetry. In this post, we’ll listen to the sounds of words. My next post will delve into line breaks, meter and rhythm.
So find a pack of Q-tips, clean the wax out of your ears, and let’s begin.
Rhyme: words with the same ending sound.
We all know about rhyme, of course: cat/hat/bat/rat. When I’m teaching beginning poetry to kids – or even to adults – I often tell them they’re not allowed to rhyme. After the moans and groans (How can it possibly be poetry if it doesn’t rhyme?), I ask if they’ve ever written a poem where had to force the meaning to fit the rhyme. Most of us have. But rhyme can be useful, whether you’re writing formal verse, free verse or something in between. We’re generally think of rhyme as one thing, but it actually comes in a variety of flavors.
True Rhyme: words with exact same ending sounds
(Also known as Full Rhyme, Exact Rhyme or Perfect Rhyme)
Examples: cat/hat/bat/rat, pillow/willow, quotation/rotation/flotation
I tend to go through the alphabet, trying out various beginning letters until I find a rhyme I like, but a rhyming dictionary can also be helpful: http://www.rhymezone.com/
Identical Rime or Rime Riche: a word that rhymes with itself.
Examples: pale/pale, will/will
Slant Rhyme: words with similar ending sounds
(Also known as Near Rhyme, Half Rhyme or Off Rhyme)
Examples: odd/bad, pillow/follow, quotation/Canadian
Try this fun tool: http://www.rhymedesk.com/. Insert a word, and it will offer you perfect rhymes, near rhymes, synonyms, antonyms, definitions, a thesaurus and syllable count (which will prove useful later, when we play with meter and rhythm).
End Rhyme: rhyme that comes at the ends of lines in a poem.
Now that so many poets write in free verse, there’s a tendency to think of end rhyme as old-fashioned and sing-songy. Still, I recommend trying it out, and working your way through a variety of rhymes until you find the ones that best express your meaning.
Internal Rhyme: rhyme that appears within a line.
More subtle than end rhyme, this can be a wonderful echoing note to weave into free verse.
Alliteration: same starting sounds.
Examples: wake/would/wiggle, cable/could/Kant
This doesn’t necessarily mean the same starting letters. Cat and children are not alliterative, though cat and kangaroo are. Alliteration can provide a powerful sense of purpose, or a pop of playfulness.
Consonance: the same consonant sounds, which may appear anywhere in the word
Examples: deck/kid/ache, wasp/slither/ask
Consonance is a subtle way of connecting words with one another. You can use consonance in consecutive words, or sprinkle it throughout the poem. It gives a poem a certain sense of coherence, though it can sometimes feel forced or overdone.
Assonance: the same vowel sounds (though not necessarily the same vowel), which may appear anywhere in a word
Examples: wonder/undo/comfortable, bake/able/okay
Assonance (a lovely, slightly naughty-sounding word to say aloud) is an even more subtle way of connecting words within a line or throughout a poem.
Onomatopoeia: words with sounds that are identical to their meaning
Examples: bang, pow, sizzle, slither
Very popular with the elementary school set, this tool can also be useful for adult poets and anyone who writes graphic novels.
Letter sounds: the sounds that individual letters make
We often talk about word choice. You can also experiment with going more granular, by paying attention to letter choice, to evoke different emotions.
If you hear a poem with a lot of “t,” “k,” and “p” sounds it’s unlikely to be a love poem, unless you’re writing about friction in love, or want to create a contrast between the sound and the meaning.
If you hear a poem with a high frequency of “l,” “m,” “w,” “n,” and “sh” sounds, it’s probably not going to concern itself with conflict, though it may have a certain passive aggressive tone. Again, you can play with reinforcing the meaning, or contrasting with it.
So now you have a “starter kit” for using sound in poetry. Try out these tools, play with them, revise old poems by paying attention to sound, or experiment in the next ones you write. And tune in two weeks from now – same blog time, same blog station – to explore line breaks, meter and rhythm in poetry.
Photograph from the New York Library Digital Collections