What Tools Do Poets Use to Create Sound in Poems?
Sound and meaning are the twin essences of poetry. Meaning comes directly from the poet's experience or contemplation, but it must be communicated to the audience through language, and that language involves sound. Therefore, knowing the tools available for producing different types of sound in verse is essential for any poet seeking to convey specific ideas and feelings.
Poets use repeating beginning sounds of words, or alliteration, to create a sound-pattern. Though it is commonly used in tongue-twisters or in rap music to produce a sing-song beat, modern poets typically use this tool sparingly. Mary Oliver in "Morning" uses alliteration several times, as in these lines: "Salt shining behind its glass cylinder. / Milk in a blue bowl. / The yellow linoleum. / The cat stretching her black body from the pillow." In Old English verse, alliteration was a more customary device of poets, as in this verse from "Beowulf": "So they went on their way. The ship rode the water, / Broad beamed, bound by its hawser. / Their mail-shirts glinted, / Hard and hand-linked; the high-gloss iron / Of their armor rang."
Consonance and Assonance
In addition to the repetition of beginning sounds, the poet also has two other repetition devices in his tool bag -- assonance and consonance. Assonance is the repeating sound of vowels and consonance the repetition of consonants in the middle or end of a word. John Keats' poem "Ode to Melancholy" contains examples of both devices. In the line "Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine ...," the "t" sounds in "tight-rooted" and "its" are used to create consonance. Additionally, in the line, "And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes," the repetition of the double "e" sound creates assonance.
Different kinds of rhyme -- masculine, feminine, triple and quadruple -- are commonly used by poets to produce a particular meter. Single-syllable rhyming words, such as "loo" and "coo," are considered masculine, and double-syllable words, such as "camping" and "tramping," are considered feminine. Triple-syllable rhymes are rare and typically used for comic effect -- it's difficult to find rhyming words that are that long without being silly. Ogden Nash was a virtuoso at triple rhyme, creating funny, clever verse, such as: "I shoot the hippopotamus / With bullets made of platinum / Because if I use leaden ones / His hide is sure to flatten 'em." George Gordon, Lord Byron, even managed a quadruple rhyme in this line from "Don Juan": "But- Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?"
Among the tools available to the poet for creating sound, onomatopoeia imitates a specific audible effect. Bees buzzing, engines zooming and clocks ticking are examples of this device. Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells" uses multiple instances of onomatopoeia to describe the bells' sound: "How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, / In the icy air of night!; To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells / From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells." Another example is Gwendolyn Brooks' "Cynthia in the Snow" in which the poet writes of the snow: "It shushes / It hushes / The loudness in the road. / It flitter-twitters, / And laughs away from me."
- California State University Chico: A Few Sound Devices
- St. Edwards University: My Web: Devices
- The Library of Congress: Poetry 180: Morning
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Rhyme
- Fordham University Church: Edgar Allen Poe: The Bells
- University of Houston Clear Lake: Online Poems: Example of Onomatopoeia
Karen Clark has been writing professionally since 2001. Her work includes articles on gardening, education and literature. Clark has also published short literary fiction in the "Southern Humanities Review" and has co-authored a novel. Her professional experience includes teaching and tutoring students of all ages in literature, history and writing. She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in political science and a Master of Fine Arts in writing.