Thursday 23 December 2010

The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Of course we've always known that chickens cluck and cows moo, but the influence of sound goes wider and deeper than that. We 'chip little bits' but 'chop logs'. Twigs are small; trunks are big. There are exceptions (big should refer to little things, and bugs should be big) but words derive from many sources and we should expect some exceptions.

The more that these trends are studied the more universal they seem - petit, piccolo and klein contrast with grand, grande and gross. And the trends go beyond simple concepts like size. With some poets it's possible to guess the theme of the work without understanding a word of it by calculating the relative proportion of sounds - the guess isn't always correct but I'm amazed that it's possible at all. People have tried to create dictionaries of sound meanings. Here's an extract about the L sound from Galt's book - Positive skews in love poems and narratives: strong positive skews in "tender" and "musical" poems. Negative skews in poems of family and home, nostalgia, and humor, with a negative skew for "non-musical" poems which is just below the level of significance. This phoneme certainly distinguishes, in Storm's verse, between "musicality" and its opposite, and its presence can evidently also contribute to a feeling of "tenderness"

If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. In Violi's book Haj Ross spends 40 pages on the sounds in "The Tyger" pointing out dozens of features such as

  • The sound F only occurs on even-numbered lines, and gangs with R.
  • while all the words in the Tyger line except one are bisyllables, this line being the most polysyllabic of the whole poem, all of the words in the Lamb line are monosyllabic

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc. However, with free verse these dispersive patterns are beginning to dominate. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's Ceasefire

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

Interest in sound effects has revived because 1) computers can now analyse a lifetime's work in minutes; 2) brain-scanning has enhanced our understanding of music's effects; 3) the study of pragmatics has attracted attention to the non-semantic effects of words. If music can be profound, why not the sound of words? It too uses repetition combined with variation. It too has incantatory power. The semantics can modulate sound's meaning much as the choice of instrument can affect music's meaning. A violin's C isn't the same as a trumpet's, just as oo is recognisable but differently received in moon and spoon.

Though we may never return to the clogged tongue-twisting of William Barnes'
       With fruit for me
       The apple tree
       Do lean down low in Linden lea.
we might hope for more tolerance of poets like Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. When they stop making sense perhaps they're not lapsing into non-sense but instead bringing out the tonality of words, an alternative mode of meaning making sense an echo to the sound.


  • "Sound and Sense in the Poetry of Theodor Storm", Alan B. Galt, Herbert Lang, 1973
  • "52 Ways of Looking at a Poem", Ruth Padel, Chatto & Windus, 2002
  • "The Sounds of Poetry", Robert Pinsky, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998
  • "Phonosymbolism and Poetic Language", Patrizia Violi (ed), Brepols Publishers, 2000

(published in Acumen)

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