Sound in Poetry

Much popular poetry today takes the form of performance poetry, thanks to the way Def Poetry Jam and YouTube have popularized the poetry slam, which in turn has elevated sound as an essential part of stage poetry (as opposed to what has been called page poetry).

When I put “Because you asked about the line between prose and poetry” into the Poems about Studying Poetry packet, I did so because of its sound qualities. Most people think of rhyme when they think of sound in poetry, but poets know that it is repetitions – alliteration, assonance, consonance – that are most pleasing to the ear.

Once you learn the names of these terms, you’ll recognize them more and more often, and you’ll get more enjoyment from the poems you read. So let’s take a look at Howard Nemerov’s poem and play a round of Name that Sound Device.

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

The first line is dominated by –r, long –e and short –i sounds; you call the consonant sound consonance, and the vowel sound assonance. But being able to name them won’t do much for you. But that won’t stop me from pointing out that feeding-freezing is alliteration (the –f sound), as is while-watched, and the –sl sound in silver aslant, slow is even more alliteration.

The unity through sound, the way sound arranges the words in the sentence – these are the things Eminem talks about. As we read more, we’ll look a bit more at the role sound plays beyond making poetry pleasing to the ear.

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