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Many people will read a poem without listening to it. Often they might pick out a clever metaphor or two, explore the themes, even identify a few biographical details that add to their understanding, but to really appreciate a poem fully you need to read it aloud – or use the internet to find someone else doing so.

The Beginning

Philip Roberts claims that sound is poetry’s “primary magic”. In the early days, before paper, before print, poetry was only ever sound. Phonemic patterns helped to make a poem memorable – which was important for the audience, not to mention the person reciting the poem – but even with that aside, think of your own early experience of poetry and you’ll probably remember nursery rhymes for the joy of sound. Nick-nack paddiwack? Hickory dickory dock? These are phrases we could enjoy without worrying about meaning. It was the same for Dylan Thomas. Regarding nursery rhymes, he said “what the words stood for, symbolised, or meant, was of very secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them”. This was something he’d demonstrate in his own poetry.

The Devil’s in the Details

    “Incarnate devil in a talking snake,

     The central plains of Asia in his garden,

     In shaping-time the circle stung awake,

     In shapes of sin forked out the bearded apple”

     (‘Incarnate Devil’, Dylan Thomas)

Reading the extract above aloud, one of the most notable sound patterns you’ll hear is sibilance. The words themselves may take some puzzling out, but you’ll hear the s sound in “snake”, “central”, “plains”, “circle”, “shapes” and “sin”, especially with such words located so closely together. The s sound can often be soft and soothing, but that does not seem to be the case here; in the context of a snake, we have a hissing effect instead that makes the opening of the poem rather sinister.

There’s also a quickening rhythm. The extract begins slowly, partly due to the syllables in words like “incarnate” and “talking”, the hyphenated “shaping-time”, but also because of the long vowel sound in “snake” that is repeated in “plains” and “Asia” and “shaping”. This assonance is also there in “awake” and “shapes” as well, but by now monosyllabic words dominate and even “bearded” and “apple” have a quick blunt pronunciation. Not easy to see on the page, but there for the ear to hear if you read it out loud. We begin with a rather lethargic opening right up to the word “stung”, and then it’s as if the word has startled the poem into a more alert faster pace.

Something else worth noting is the use of rhyme. It might be tempting to pick out “snake” rhyming with “awake”, but there’s not much to say about that. It reinforces the impact of “stung” perhaps, the snake being the cause of awake, but a more interesting rhyme to note would be the assonantal half-rhyme of “talking” and “forked”. Without it, “forked” as a verb choice would seem more physical than what is intended, namely that “forked” really represents speaking, “talking”, the fork a reference to the snake’s tongue.

Rhyme’s Reason

Rhyme is the best known of the phonemic patterns used in English poetry. The rhyme scheme can play an important part in the poem’s emotional effect – an elaborate rhyme scheme may reflect something more formal or ceremonial, something more reflective perhaps, whereas a narrative poem such as a ballad may use a simpler rhyme scheme better suited to action – but often there’s something more significant to notice as well.

Take Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ for example:

    “Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,

     Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;

     Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.

     Here are cool mosses deep,

     And through the moss the ivies creep,

     And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,

     And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.”

     (‘The Lotus-Eaters’, Alfred Lord Tennyson)

According to Greek legend, those who ate the fruit of the lotus would experience a drowsy stillness. Note how that languorous effect is represented in the sound of the extract above with the long vowel sounds in “lies”, “eyes”, and “skies”, with “deep”, “creep”, “weep”, and “sleep”. And these rhymes aren’t limited to the end of lines; there are plenty of examples as internal rhymes too, slowing the pace so much that there is no need of caesura – though there is a forced pause at the end of each line, and through the repeated conjunction “and”. The drowsy effect is emphasised by the use of repetition throughout (and what is rhyme but a repetition of sound?) with the words “tired” and “sleep” particularly effective, both of which share assonantal rhyme with sounds already established.

Sounding Similar

While Tennyson and others used rhyme effectively, there are some who argue that rhyme in poetry can be restrictive, and that its use can lessen a poem’s power in that it leads the reader to predict patterns before they occur. Moving away from the restrictions and expectations of rhyme, Wilfred Owen employed a technique called pararhyme, or partial rhyme, as you can see in the line endings of the example below.

    “Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
     How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
     Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
     And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

     Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
     Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
     Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
     Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.”

     (‘Arms and the Boy’, Wilfred Owen)

This similarity in sound between words like “blade” and “blood” links them more powerfully than a full rhyme might have, allowing each word its own impact while binding it to another. But also note the alliteration.

Along with rhyme, alliteration is one of the oldest and most popular of phonemic patterns in poetry. Our oldest surviving poem, Beowulf, uses it throughout and it is still used today for artistic emphasis (and not only in poetry – adverts and articles also love alliteration). In Owen’s poem, notice the repeated b sound in “boy”, “bayonet-blade”, “blood”, and “blind, blunt bullet-heads”. The sound links “boy” with a range of dangerous words, sealing his fate, while the harsh blunt sound of a b in quick succession resembles the sound of gunfire. It’s not quite onomatopoeia regarding these words – onomatopoeia is when the sound of a word imitates its own meaning – but it seems to add an additional onomatopoeic effect to the poem.

Other poets have used alliteration effectively, but it also remains a device for simply making a poem sound better. And pleasing sounds are not to be undervalued.

Cellar Doors and Nevermore

Phonaesthetics, or psychoacoustics, has it that words hold inherent qualities regardless of literal meaning. Some words are euphonic, which is to say they have an agreeable sound, a particular beauty or pleasantness. J. R. R. Tolkein claimed in one of his lectures that “cellar door” was one of the most euphonic combinations of words in English. It’s a comment that is often attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps due to his use of “nevermore” as quothed often by ‘The Raven’.

Marjorie Boulton feels that Poe overdoes it in ‘The Raven’, but look at the final stanza and you’ll see how poets use a range of techniques to produce a variety of wonderful sound effects. There’s rhyme (and half rhyme, and internal rhyme), assonance, alliteration, enjambment, caesura… practically everything of a poet’s pallet mixes here to produce a pleasing sound, enriched by a powerful rhythm and final exclamatory.

    “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

     On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

     And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

     And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

     And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

            Shall be lifted – nevermore!”

A Final Note

Philip Roberts claims that “the language of a poem is not being used primarily to communicate a message, but to draw attention to the act of expression itself”, that there’s a musicality to poetry. When I taught T.S. Eliot for the first time, I started by simply reading ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ aloud to my class. No introduction to modernism, no background on Eliot, just the sounds of the poem. It sparked a great deal of enthusiastic discussion with a focus almost entirely on how the poem sounded rather than what it meant, how the sounds contributed to the listener’s emotional response. Poems should be heard, not hard, so if you’re faced with a poem you find difficult to understand, try listening to it first and consider how it makes you feel. Trust me, it’s sound advice.

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