The final tool in the poet’s toolbox, sound, is by no means the least important. In fact, this auditory element is one of the things that sets poetry apart from prose.
The sound of the words of poetry does much to contribute to the mood and memorability of a poem.
So what options can a poet exploring sound choose from? Take a look.
An onomatopoeia is a word formed through the imitation of a sound. Crash, pop, buzz, and quack are all examples of onomatopoeia. This type of effect is most common in poetry written for children, but it can be used in other works to create a distinctive sound.
Onomatopoeia is probably one of the most obvious ways in which sound effects are produced in poetry, but it is certainly not the only one.
Repetition is just what the word implies—repeating a word or phrase for effect, perhaps in quick succession or perhaps throughout a stanza or poem.
This device draws the attention of our readers or listeners to something that we don’t want them to miss, thus reinforcing a concept or mood.
Anaphora is a specific type of repetition. In anaphora, the same word or phrase is used at the beginning of multiple lines of poetry, usually in succession.
As you can imagine, anaphora creates a particularly strong sense of emphasis.
Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sounds. An example sentence would be, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
Of course, this example highlights a tricky aspect of alliteration, and that is its tendency to tie the tongue in knots. Tongue-twisting phrases may be desirable in many poems, particularly those intended to be humorous, but be careful not to unintentionally impact your poem’s readability!
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds throughout a passage of poetry, not just at the beginnings of words. An example would be the repetition of dl sounds in the phrase, “Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds throughout a passage. Notice that “Hey, diddle, diddle, etc.,” is an example of assonance as well as of consonance.
Dissonance is the opposite of assonance. More precisely defined, dissonance is the combination of various vowels sounds that do not repeat or blend smoothly. The result is often a discordant effect, sometimes difficult to pronounce. Dissonance is usually used to build tension in a poem.
Dissonance is sometimes confused with cacophony (see below). However, the word refers strictly to the combination of unlike vowel sounds.
The term euphony refers to a pleasing combination of sounds, producing an effect where one sound flows smoothly into another in almost a melodic fashion. Euphony is produced by a judicious balancing of rhyme, meter, and repetitive devices.
Tools that tend to contribute to euphony include:
- Perfect rhyme.
- Internal rhyme.
- Soft consonant sounds (e.g., l or m).
Of course, euphony is rather subjective. What sounds “pleasing” to one ear may sound dull or lifeless to another. Nevertheless, the principles of smoothness and readability should be apparent.
Cacaphony refers to a harsh, jarring combination of sounds. A repetition of hard consonant sounds (e.g., k) may be used.
Note that euphonic and cacaphonic lines can be combined within one poem to create a contrasting effect.
So is euphony the gold standard and cacaphony an undesirable mistake? Of course not! If the goal is to shake the audience up a bit and awaken them to the drama or urgency of the moment, rather than lull them with smooth words, cacaphony is actually the better tool for the purpose. As with most things, no one tool is better than another, except when it is the right tool for the job at hand.