About Poetry – Part 2.a

Topic One – Sound Within Poetry

The first thing about sound within a line of poetry, that either is or is not being carried over to the next line of poetry via end-stopping (punctuation or some other method) or enjambment (the way the line is broken and carried over to the next line).

The most basic building block of sound is that of the syllable. If you are not a native speaker, or even if you are, the below video of a poem being read on Youtube might help understanding pronunciation of syllables.

The Chaos of English by Gerard Nolst Trenité – Youtube video by JimmmyJams

In a future post, I will, for amusement go over why the word spelling is the way they are and why they at least have logic to them. Although, there clearly needs to be some unification. This is a fun topic. For now, however, just remember that in English phonetics are consistent, while the spelling is not.

So how is it that we know which part of a word is stressed, say in the word “Permit?”

The answer is not in the loudness with which we speak a phrase like, Robert Pinskey’s example, “Permit me to give you a permit.” In this phrase, he has shown us that the stress falls differently on the first permit than it does on the second. This proves that stressed and unstressed syllables within English are relative to the words around them. The act of reading lines to determine where the stress falls within is called scansion.

So, how then, do we know how the stresses fall if it is all relative? Poetry is a spoken art and without speaking a poem out loud it will be harder to determine where the stresses fall. When you read out loud without modifying your voice, with a correct understanding of pronunciation, there is a natural raising and lowering of the amount of stress placed on syllables or single-syllable words. This is scansion, for some, it will come as a no-brainer and for others, it will take some practice. Only you can master this, but understanding how different patterns of stress have been used within the history of verse within the line can be learned.

Let’s go back for a sec, as I think this is worth relating.

The fact is, the brain sees, remembers, and feels in pictures. This is why poetry has existed since languages roots. An eon ago a man climbed up on top of a stone and began reciting his words, and in that recitation was born the pulpit. Human beings literally made stone staircases going to nowhere for this purpose. We find even to this day a picture painted with words more moving than 1000 pages of ground-out prose. It’s in our very brains wiring, we just do. Now, that brings me to a sad fact. From those staircases, there must have been some of the most moving, awe-inspiring words to ever come out of human thought. Yet, they are gone because they were not written down, or the language was lost, or the writing burned in the libraries. This is why we write in an alphabet on a page and back our works up or it will be lost to the Brownian Motion of time.

Now, back on subject

The sound “it” by itself is neither stressed nor unstressed, but when we put the word next to other syllables it tends to become stressed as in the words “Jitter and reiterate, and becomes unstressed as in the word “inhabit” or “let them have it,” or “get to the doctor.” This is the sound of English when read aloud and these examples show how relative it is.

There is another part of the rhythm of sounds that come from our mouths when reading, and that is an accent. Accent is the changing pitch of a syllable. Some are higher changes; some are lower changes, but the length of a syllable does not make stress either, it is the changing pitch with the duration of a word that determines stress and unstressed syllables within a line of poetry. All of this complicated explanation it to do one thing, help you understand what you can already hear. Again, understanding length, plus width, plus height equals stress is up to your ears to figure out. So, what about syllable length? The longer, higher pitch a sound is in relation to another syllable the more likely it is to be the stressed one. You do have the information now, and it is dry stuff. There are books that can go deeper into the matter, but at the heart of it are your ears. I think this is a good start.

No one talks to themselves about stressed and unstressed syllables it is just something you learn to hear, learn to fact check when need and you move on… for the most part.

A long time ago in a land far-off, there used to be set forms of poetry, that could be thought of as templates. These all had one thing in common, for the most part, they required the writer to stick to a certain amount of unstressed and stress combinations within a given line of what was called metrical verse. They also would have certain rhyming conventions in the form of patterns, sometimes forms like sonnets would have more than one form of pattern but they would pull from the list of used patterns, unless a new form was developed. Lastly, some forms of poem templates, kinds of metrical verse, would also have refrains or repeating lines in patterns. All of this effort was taken as it was found that these ideas generally sounded good.

And like a wall being knocked down entered the kool-aid man, I mean free verse poetry. With the term free verse there is a lot of confusion. People say that free-verse has no rules, which it does not, but some as if English suddenly lost it’s very real sound when spoken aloud. It did not. When free-verse took the stage and drop the beat it really abandoned the template. It abandoned given line lengths, all lines being the same length, patterns of rhyming, rhyme in general, a pattern of refrains. But, again, it does not mean that you cannot use any or all or some mixture of pattern. The song has changed but the sound remains the same.

In the second part of part 2 (I know), we will go over individual word sounds and how they relate to one another and might be used to create pleasing effects. Check back.




 

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