For thousands of years poetry has endured as an oral expression, holding up a mirror to the human condition. From the early poets of ancient civilisations to a modern slam poetry session, the tapestry of sound rings out in performance. Spoken rhymes and rhythms facilitate poetry’s power to move.
Between English poetry and Western music there are parallels. The sounds of words and silence between may be used for effect just as harmony, timbre, rests and melody in music. All poets whether performance or those writing ‘page’ poetry should have a keen awareness of the sound patterns.
Both music and poetry place importance on stressed and un-stressed sounds. A ‘foot’ in poetry is a pair or triplet of strong and weak syllables, e.g. “to be” is weak-strong. Similarly, a bar in musical notation resembles a foot of a poem.
When you are writing poetry, make conscious choices over the vowel sounds, and whether they are long or short. Become aware of the use of assonance and consonance, alliteration and rhyme. Use these attributes to highlight key information, indicate emotional interest or bring to your poem. Further, to borrow terms from linguistics: consider where you use the plosives, fricatives, sibilants and sonorants. Here are some examples of these technical terms:
- Sonorants: e.g. “m”, ”n”, such as in “none”;
- Fricatives: e.g. “f”, “v”, “h”, such as in “five”;
- Sibilants: e.g. “s”, ”z”, such as in “hiss”;
- Plosives: e.g. “d”, “p”, ”k”, such as in “dead”.
In Doodlebug, I have a line: “A kettle exhales. Hob hot on gas jets”. Consider how the fricatives of “h” and the sibilants work with this image.
Try this out, if you haven’t already, on your next poem, whether for free verse or the song of the sonnet.
[Doodlebug has been previously published in The Cannon’s Mouth Quarterly, Cannon Poets, Issue 70, December 2018, ISSN 1745-6630].
Copyright Clifford Liles, January 2020.