by Melissa Donovan
Most writers are primarily concerned with the meaning of the words they choose. Is the language precise and accurate? Do the words provide the best connotation for what the writer is trying to communicate? Does the language show, rather than tell?
But poets take language a step further and push it into the realm of music. Poets care about meaning, precision, and accuracy as well as connotation and imagery. But they also care about how words sound, because musicality is a fundamental feature of poetry.
Poets use various elements of music to compose a poem. But because the written word is read and not heard, some elements of music aren’t available, like pitch and timbre.
Spoken word and performance (or slam) poetry are exceptions, because these works are designed to be heard and can incorporate musical elements that aren’t available to authors who write to be read. But most poets rely on a variety of literary devices and techniques to bring music to their work. Foremost among these are meter, sound, rhyme, repetition, and structure.
In poetry, meter is a syllabic pattern, which is determined by stressed and unstressed syllables. We’ll use bold to denote stressed syllables in the first line of “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich:
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
Let’s see what happens when we strip away the language, so we can see the raw meter of the line:
da-da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-da DUM DUM da-DUM
As you can see, the meter gives the poem rhythm, an underlying drumbeat. This demonstration shows why it’s important to review the syllables in the lines of your poetry to check the meter.
A song’s melody is determined by the sequence and length of notes played or sung by musicians. In poetry, melody is driven by the vowel and consonant sounds within the words of the poem. Consider this simple tune: la de-da, la de-da, la-la-la.
Now compare it to this: doo-da, doo-da, doo-de-da.
We don’t know the exact notes or melody just from reading these sounds, but there is an implied tune when we read them aloud. We can bring a little rhythm to the sounds as well by placing stress on select syllables:
LA de-da, LA de-da, LA-LA-LA.
DOO-da, DOO-da, DOO-de-DA.
So how do we put it all together? By choosing words that match the melody and meter that we’re aiming for:
LA de-da, LA de-da, LA-LA-LA.
On the dock, six o’clock, stomp on rock
DOO-da, DOO-da, DOO-de-DA.
Stooping, drooping, boorish king
You’ll notice that in addition to rhythm and meter, we introduced some rhymes.
The most common rhymes are perfect end rhymes–words that appear at the end of lines in poetry and that rhyme perfectly. Here’s an example from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better, it’s not.
The words lot and not rhyme perfectly and are placed at the end of the first two lines, respectively. The placement of rhyme in a poem, coupled with its meter, can give the lines a sing-song quality. We can use different meters, sounds, and rhyme placements to pull different musical qualities into our poetry. Here’s an excerpt from “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, which shows internal rhymes:
At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
Try reading these lines aloud to hear the inherent music contained within. Notice that the lines do not use a metrical pattern, but the layered internal rhymes give it rhythm:
- away and breaks
- hot and rock
- bones, open, and flows
- The word point appears three times in these five lines, but the repetition of this word is barely noticeable.
It’s worth noting that some poems don’t rhyme at all. Rhyme is important in poetry, but it’s actually a subset of a broader and even more important poetic device that is essential in both poetry and music: repetition. After all, rhyme is just repetition of sounds.
Repetition is the technique that really sums up how we make music out of words in poetry. All of the techniques mentioned above ultimately use repetition:
- We create a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables — and a pattern is really just repetition.
- We choose words and arrange them in such a way that they create a pseudo melody, which is achieved primarily by patterning (or repeating) certain sounds.
- And we use rhyme — maybe end rhymes that ring like cymbals or internal rhymes that jingle like a tambourine. Rhymes are, by nature, repetition.
Layering the repetitions of these elements creates greater musical dynamics in a poem.
As you can see, a poem’s musicality really comes from the repetition of various elements within the lines and stanzas. And there are more elements that we can repeat. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in close proximity: prickly pears. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity: hat rack.
Some poems even use repetition in their very structure.
A poem’s music also comes from its structure — the length of lines and stanzas, placement of line and stanza breaks, punctuation, and spacing. All of these elements contribute to the poem’s structural sounds and therefore contribute to its musicality.
In music, a rest is an interval of silence. In poetry, these intervals are indicated by line breaks, stanza breaks, punctuation, and spacing. Rests are similar to the concept of white space in art.
For example, punctuation provides indicators for pausing (or resting) with commas and periods or inflections for questions and exclamations.
Do You Make Music with Poetry?
Plenty of excellent works of poetry aren’t especially musical. But musicality is an important aspect of poetry.
How do you infuse your poetry with music?