"I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing."--Seamus Heaney

omething that is "sound" is something that is well-made.  Sound in poetry is a discussion not simply of what a poem's noises are.  It also questions whether or not those noises are working--whether or not they help the poem to be well-made.  This suggests that a poem's sound operates
beyond coincidence, and that the poet is as aware of sound as a musician or composer.  Sound, in this sense, is part of the poet's toolbox.  It is one more choice that helps the poet to write a better poem.

Sound exists or does not exist in a poem--that is, as a reader you are very aware of it, or else it makes no
particular differenceThese two conditions may be thought of as sonic intensity and sonic distance.  Sonic intensity is when the sound is everything in a poem.  Sonic distance, on the other hand, is when sound is simply one more part of whatever makes the poem successful.

The poet may use sonic intensity for several reasons.  First, a moment in a poem may be magnified or trumpeted by sound.  This technique may serve to make the reader more aware of the importance of the moment, or it may suggest a complexity that the reader might otherwise have overlooked.  Second, sound itself in the mouth of the reader may be the point of the poem.  In either case, sonic intensity slows the reader down by making that reader pay attention.  In doing this, the poem suggests a lateral, or sideways, movement, rather than simply straightforward movement.  This kind of movement in a poem says to the reader,
I know you're in a hurry, but sit down for a moment and have a glass of cold lemonade--it'll make you feel better.

Sonic distance, on the other hand, suggests forward or linear movement.  This technique says to the reader,
Yes, I saw him, Sheriff.  He ran thataway--you'll catch him if you hurry.  This approach may be equally important to the poet's intention and may also be used for a variety of reasons.  The poet, for example, may not want the reader to linger.  The point to be made may be farther down in the poem, or else there may be more to read before jumping to any conclusions.  In this case, sound in the mouth of the reader is exactly what the poet does not want.  The poet may purposefully use quiet or unpretentious wording in order to avoid drawing attention to the language, which may not be the point of that particular poem.  Maybe the poet prefers the reader to consider the whole idea of a poem, or else the poem may be telling a kind of story.

Sonic intensity often leads to what are called lyric poems.  These are poems of substantial, imaginative moment, where the beginning, middle, or end--the plot elements--are not as important as the moment experienced.  Sonic distance, on the other hand, often suggests what are called narrative poems.  In narrative poems, plot elements clearly come into play and have an importance equal to the single moment in a poem.  What's happened and what's going to happen are as important to understanding the poem as what's happening in the moment. 

These two approaches are not necessarily on opposite sides, and many, even most, poems blend both the moment and the story of a poem.  In both sonic intensity and distance, however, sound helps to achieve the greater purpose of the poem.  As a result, through the centuries sound has been especially associated with poetry.

But what kinds of sounds create this intensity or distance for the reader?  Any single sound will do, but it is not the single sound that produces these results.  It is, instead, a careful combination of sounds that creates one effect or the other.  If a sequence of syllables, words, or whole lines make the reader pay attention because of their collective sounds, then sonic intensity occurs
.  Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, picked a peck of--well, you know the rest.  "Peter Piper" is a good, classic example of a group of sounds that make a reader pay attention.  A tongue twister is purposefully difficult and challenging in the mouth, using alliteration to produce this effect.  Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of a series of words.  Much poetry, while more subtle than a tongue twister, exhibits the same attentive use of language, as in the following short examples of Anglo-Saxon prosody from student poems: "wept, awoke.  I wandered and slept," "in her gravel garden, again," and "beside him icy saplings."

Rhyme, of course, is another way to make the reader pay attention.  This is a time-honored device associated with poetry, and by extension, music.  Rhyme is very effective.  Like dynamite, it can absolutely do the job.  So, the poet's first question when using rhyme should probably be: is there a job to be done by the rhyme?  That is, why is it being used?  Rhyme may be pleasing to the ear, but upon entering the ear it reaches the brain, which may have a second opinion.  If all it does is bring attention to itself, but without furthering the poem in any particular way, then things begin to fall apart.  Children's poetry or silly poems written purely for fun are often the exception to this standard:
How now, brown cow.  But if the poem is meant to be successful on some greater level, then there has to be a point to the rhyme, the same way choosing a certain word has a point.

Rhyme is certainly not a bad thing, however.  At its best, rhyme's repetition offers to the reader a variety of pleasing sensibilities, including, for example, a sense of completion and recognition, both of which are comforts to the human spirit.  Rhyme repeats a sound, which the reader recognizes as having heard earlier in the poem.  This suggests a number of reasons for its usage--memory, for one.  If a reader recognizes the sound, this means the reader remembers it, and therefore is actively engaged in memory, no matter how slight.  But if a poet is writing about the future, then perhaps rhyme is not a congruent choice.  Rhyme is certainly one tool in the poet's toolbox, but a good writer, like a good carpenter, does not use only a hammer to build a porch.

And rhyme is not simply one thing.  There are many, many forms of rhyme.  Too often the word "rhyme" is relegated only to its simplest and most overt association, true rhyme--as in
blue and glue.  Rhyme, however, can occur anywhere, and in any sequence, and is often much more elegant and surprising in something other than its true rhyme form.  Rhyme may occur at the beginning of a line, for example, rather than at the end.  And it may be more jazz-like than straightforward, as in the old wrestler's name, Gorgeous George.  Rhyme is clearly there, but it's a little trickier to tame.  Our impulse might be to think "Gorgeous Georgeous," but therein is the delight--it doesn't behave itself, and so as a listener you take notice.  And therefore, what a brilliant name this becomes for a wrestler who himself would not behave.

Sometimes, more than sounds or words get repeated.  Whole lines or even whole sections of poems might repeat.  In blues poems, for instance, the first two lines are usually the same, while the third is completely different.  Repeating the first line twice focuses the reader, and builds up a dramatic foundation.  It sets up the reader, who knows the third line is coming.  This is reminiscent of watching Lucy hold Charlie Brown's football, and how she moves it every time he comes up to kick.  Rhyme often plays a part in this repetition.  A blues refrain line, then, is a cousin to the alliterated word.  It's a mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar, and that juxtaposition creates energy.  The first part is an introduction, a comfort, but the second part sweeps your legs out from under you.  It's like:
shake hands--which we know how to do, familiar and regular--with the President of the United States!  Or, with this grizzly bear!  Well, of course blues, and often much literature, is a little more interesting and funny than that.  It's more like: I love my girlfriend, I do I do with all my life / I love my girlfriend, I do I do with all my life / But oh but oh don't tell my wife!

Many things, then, enhance sonic intensity.  But finally, the best is the oldest technique of all, and one which combines all of these practices: reading aloud.  You can only put one sound at a time in your mouth, while your mind on the other hand can race between ideas much more quickly, not being hampered by sounding anything out at all.  This sounding out slows a poem down, and puts it to the lyric test.  This shows, quite easily, how every word ultimately matters.

Sonic distance is the other side of sonic intensity.  If in combination the sounds in a poem produce no particular effect, no jolting to the ear, the result is sonic distance.  In a poem, this technique may lead to a greater narrative or story, to a consideration of ideas, or sometimes simply to quietude--but it absolutely has an effect as well, and is equally a part of the poet's toolbox.  This is a poem without obvious rhyme, without a predictable refrain or structure, without the alliteration.  It has no ready clues to offer the reader beyond the words themselves.  It asks a small faith from the reader, and must offer something worthy in exchange.

Sonic distance cannot be discussed, therefore, by any particular characteristics.  Rather, as readers, we must consider the whole poetic effect, the sense of genuine response we have in finishing a poem.  In this way,
the reader is the rhyme to the poem.  The reader is the third line of a blues refrain, the one that is changed.  This is a lot to ask of a reader, and sets the stakes high.  "His eyes were his résumé," someone wrote.  And I understood.  Someone else wrote about "a compass on a lazy susan," and the sudden science inherent in this image was beguiling, making the idea more forceful than even its carefully placed extra share of "s" sounds.

When thinking about all of this, when reading or writing a poem yourself, beware of instructions and rules and dissections.  The best and first thing when trying to understand or write a poem is to listen and think for yourself.  Taste the poem in your mouth.  Listen to it as it comes out of there.  The mouth is its ancient home.  Understand too that no single rule or set of rules applies to all poems.  The greatest gift a poem has to give is that it is new: its subject matter and, at least to some extent, its own rules are new.

This does not mean to say that a great poem doesn't talk about old things, or that it ignores the rules that govern language use.  A great poem knows, understands, and utilizes those very ideas, but in the same moment finds a way to go beyond them.  The best poems, finally, may come down to simply good choices, which may not be consistent or constant at all.  Good choices, each step of the way, whether by rule or by invention or both.  Regarding the words in a poem, have the patience to ask yourself,
Is this a good choice?  A sound choice?

Here is the final, great secret about poems and sound.  A great poem is hard to read aloud, finally, because it takes your breath away.  But this is a good problem
If by its sounds the poem has rendered you speechless, and if those sounds come to mean something important to you in that moment, then--no matter what rules ought to apply--the poem has done its job.


Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry.  Ed. Jeff Knorr and Tim Schell.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.  "Degas in Vegas: Some Thoughts on Sound in Poetry."  34-37.


Alberto Ríos
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe AZ 85287-0302
(480) 965-3800
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Date last modified:
Thursday, August 31, 2000