I have six Shetland sheep. They are pets so I named them all. Ruby and Tess are twins with beautiful brown fleece. They were the first sheep I brought home. Then I took a wether from my friend because he was going to be lamb chops, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I named him Pan. He is white but has cool black markings around his edges, that is, his face, hind quarters and belly. He’s got cool black horns. This summer I purchased another set of twin lambs with sweet little white faces: Bonnie and Sergeant Butterscotch. Their wool color is ever-changing. Shetland sheep do that. In fact, you never know after a shearing what color will grow in next. The sixth sheep is darling little Merlin, the black sheep of the flock. You can learn a lot from animals.
The first task I finished
was picking through the last
batch of wool, sheared from one
of the twins, my fingers lost
in the brown fleece, warm,
and greasy as I plucked fibers
to get to embedded seed heads
and timothy burrs, caught, carried,
and buried, small burdens
that had created so much work,
tucked inside such an unassuming
surface until I discovered each one
as a little lump and pulled apart
all that clung to it, pulled out
each tiny sun that no longer burned.
I do not recall what I accomplished
the rest of the day. It did not matter.
Assonance and Consonance in Poetry
One cannot talk about poetry without talking about sound. After all, poetry’s roots are in music and song and the definition of poetry encompasses elements of music: rhythm, meter, patterns of repetition. With sound comes additional meaning. Perhaps the repeated sounds within a poem create a particular mood. They certainly create pleasure for the listener. Rhyme – the repetition of end sounds – is often thought to be the key sound found in poems, but there is more than rhyme that meets the ear. Sound can also be emphasized in the repetition of vowel sounds found anywhere in the word. This is called assonance. An example can be seen in Robert Burns, “Song Composed in August”:
Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain…
This line does include internal rhyme (rhyming within the line: grain, plain), but it also includes that long a sound found in the word waving. Try substituting another word for waving and it doesn’t sound nearly as delightful. That long a sound works with the meaning of the word to expand the view of that plain.
Particular vowel sounds can create certain moods. The assonance when using the oo sound can be soothing. The repetition of ee can be creepy, eerie. In the above poem, “Today’s Work,” the short u sound kept cropping up. I try to pay attention when a particular sound presents itself a few times. Is it coincidence that the words I’m selecting have similar sounds or is what I’m writing conducive to certain words with those sounds? After I have the first draft (or two) of a poem, I reexamine it for sound. What is happening, sound-wise, at the beginning of this poem? There is the assonance in finished and picking, the assonance of task, last and batch, then that of fleece and greasy, followed by embedded and head – perhaps enough repetition to make it sound pleasant. But with the introduction of the phrase “much work” there is a long series of repeated u sounds: much, tucked, such, unassuming, discovered, one, lump, clung, sun. (A sound can be spelled many different ways). What is going on here? Why all these short u sounds? Some of them came into the poem naturally, but once I noticed a few I worked in more. Why? I don’t know. I thought it sounded good and then there was something about the chug, chug, chug of the tedious work it takes to pull out all those darn little seed heads from a large fleece. That ugly little u sound seems to emphasize the work.
Consonance – the repetition of consonants within and among words – is also a sound element that adds layers to a poem. Look again at the Burns’ line from above along with the line that follows it:
Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain,
delights the weary farmer…
We hear in these lines a repetition of the initial w sound in waving, wide, and weary, giving breathlessness to the lines and adding more emphasis to the grandeur of the farm and the exhaustion of the farmer. The repetition of the initial consonant sound in words is called alliteration. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella explains in their book, Teaching The Art of Poetry: The Moves, “Alliteration is a quickener, a stimulant…” (27). This is especially so when used in close succession to each other as in many nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and jump rope songs.
In addition to the alliteration in the two lines of Burns above, we also hear the repeated l sound in the words plain and delights, which connect one line to the next, lulling us further into the song, or rather, poem. A third instance of consonance in the couplet above is the r found in grain, o’er, weary, farmer. This sound softens the poem, lets us linger on each word a little longer.
Where is the consonance in “Todays Work”? Well, there is alliteration in first, finished, fingers, fleece, fibers. And there is the consonance of the l sound in last, wool, lost, fleece, plucked. There is the consonance of the “hard c” or k sound in picking, plucked, caught, carried, created, tucked, discovered, clung and accomplished. Interestingly, the k and short u sounds are combined in four of the words just mentioned: plucked, tucked, discovered, and clung. These aren’t particularly pleasant sounds, especially when used together, but the repetition of them emphasizes the difficulty (another word that combines the two sounds) in ridding ourselves of burdens that no longer serve a necessary function, which, of course, is really what the poem is about.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Each of these books offers chapters on the sound in poetry:
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves, edited by Baron Wormser and David Cappella
To Read a Poem, Second Edition, edited by Donald Hall
Modern Times: What They Were and Are – this is a series of weekly essays that Baron Wormser is writing. He just started on September 1, so you don’t have many to catch up on!
And here is a book all about the sound in poetry:
The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin – this is an extensive and deep collection of essays that discuss the role of sound in poetic meaning. On the first page of the introduction we find this statement by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist and literary theorist:
“’Poetry is not the only area where sound symbolism makes itself felt, but it is a province where the internal nexus between sound and meaning changes from latent into patent and manifests itself most palpably and intensely.’” Indeed.