Sound in poetry (???)

I’ll confess; in a prioritized list of all the things which swirl in my mind as I compose poetic lines, sonic qualities are typically near the bottom. It’s not that I believe there is no value to sound in poetry, which would undoubtedly be a form of blasphemy, it’s more just a product of the way my writing brain works and exists. Semantics are my focus. I tend to think chiefly in terms of conveying particular meanings, a concentration which keeps much of my thought processes entirely detached from the sonic nature of the words I choose. My recent transition to poetry workshops has certainly prompted a reevaluation of this method, yet its remnants still form an operational basis for most of the things I put on the page.

That isn’t to say I pay sounds no heed whatsoever, though, for I do tend to count syllables, or capitalize on alliterative opportunities in the poems I heavily revise. I’m a frequent user of, and lately, I’ve been turning to it much more for the purposes of alliteration or assonance. Sometimes I just know a line could read better, it could have just a little more cohesion. I don’t right know how to pin down this tactic, but it takes me to another point: I have come to believe that a “default poetic state” lives within me, one which would endlessly write cheesy limericks were I not present to rein it in. For an example, I often find myself reading a poetic line at a very particular pace, while my mind races to fill syllabic gaps in order to better construct a rhyming couplet. However, it’s a habit I consciously suppress, for I always hate the way these lines read once they are completed; campy, overdone, and cheap. I can’t say how many times I’ve completely deleted a document’s contents due to this phenomena.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to delete these documents. Why couldn’t I try for the opposite, to channel this cheesiness into a poem focused primarily on its sonic construction and rhyme scheme? It would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, yet I’d be very hesitant to let someone else read something which I myself hate… At any rate, even after a single week’s worth of readings I feel I am coming to realize the potential of sonic qualities to affect a poem’s semantics, a revelation which may prove to be paradigm-shifting for my habits. As a writer, I am always eager to attempt putting more precision and thought into my work, and sound looks to be as worthy a focus as any.

5 Replies to “Sound in poetry (???)”

  1. Noah,

    I very much agree with you on the ‘list’ within my writer’s toolbox. Sound is often not close to my first focus. I have an appreciation for word choice, but I never consider them in cohesion of their sounds together (except, as of recently–similarly to you). I mostly put my energy into line breaks and choosing a deliberate word with power, not necessarily aesthetic pleasure. BUT, there are so many benefits to the sounds that words, and letters (or even, the lack of) can create. I hope to play around with this concept as well. Using to find good ‘replacement’ words when looking to improve your poem is a great tactic, and comical at that. I very much relate to this blog post, thank you for sharing!


    1. Noah,

      I’m glad you possess such a rare concern for semantics. Honestly, more than glad, I’m a bit jealous! This kind of appreciation for the construction, the “logic” of the poem, so to speak, is what allows for thematic cohesion and fluidity in a poem.

      As a poetry rookie last fall, I was your absolute opposite and cared far more about pretty words, the lyricism of an image. Unfortunately, this resulted in poems which were disjointed and opaque — incoherent.

      Currently, I’m working to find that sensitive balance between the two extremes.

      I’d like to encourage you to be more sensitive to sound, the mouthfeel. Diction is one of those aesthetic components which can often give a piece the nuance, the specificity of experience which makes it extremely compelling; moreover, it helps make your narrative distinguishable from the millions of others.

      Consider this line from “River of Milk” by Kaveh Akbar: “there are so many ways to be deceived / a butcher’s thumb pressed into the scale / a blue dress / in a bathtub / the slow lengthening of night.” Akbar tells you that deception is easy and then gives examples of this, so specific that one can’t deny that he is speaking, writing from experience — his own experience.

      As for rhyming poems, I don’t think you should shy away from these! Again, there are no set rules in poetry. Sure, an English professor may, in their prioritization of craft, warn you against rhyme; however, they do it mostly because there aren’t many with the ability to pull it off. The best poems grip market trends and craft rules by the throat and snap them in half.

      All in all, you have the trellis, the basic bone structure. Now, your task is to build on that. Plant a heave of camelias! Eggshells! A ream of silk! Anything and everything!

      I wish you the very best of luck!

  2. Noah,
    I tend to find myself straying away from any variation of rhyme schemes in a poem, too. I think their addition leaves the poem begging for something concrete, not whimsical and childish. They always seem to be trying too hard, whereas most brilliant poems seem to be effortless in nature.
    As you had mentioned, perhaps you can use alliteration and assonance as stepping stones to full on rhyme schemes. If that still makes you uneasy, you can always try the half rhyme that we discussed in class, as well.
    Best of luck!
    P.S. Do not ever feel nervous to share some of your experimental work!

  3. Noah,

    It’s interesting to see that someone else uses, I thought I was the only one! I thought it was “cheating” at first, and then I realized that that is entirely not the case. I think it’s such a good tool for poetry, because it can provide you with inspiration to use language that you wouldn’t usually use in your operating writing vocabulary. That’s cool!

    If you find that you are struggling to consider sonic qualities, I would suggest perhaps printing out a copy of what you’re working on and circling sounds that are similar to each other in different words across the poem. Then you could shift them around with sound in direct mind. Just something to try.

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