Poetry Is For The Ear

Jerz > Writing > Creative > Poetry

Whatever poetry you write or read, learn to listen with the ears of your audience. Poetry is meant for the ear; pay attention to the sounds the words make. Writing in “free verse” does not excuse the poet’s obligation to please the ear.

Note: “free verse” is not, as the name seems to suggest, a string of random or completely uncontrolled words. Free verse aims to emulate the patterns of everyday speech, or the stream of consciousness, or the weirdly distorted patterns of the world of dreams, or who knows what — the point is that you, the poet, should be aware of what free verse can help you achieve. Don’t fall back on free verse because you have nothing better to do.

Poetry is for the Ear (jerz.setonhill.edu)If you find yourself automatically pausing at the end of every line, regardless of whether the meaning of the poem calls for a pause at that point; or, if you depend upon predictable, overused rhyme pairs (“true” and “you”, “love” and “above”), your readers may find little pleasure in your work.

Although my student Kara Ziehl suggests beginning poets should rhyme only with extreme caution, I would rather encourage students to experiment with unusual and unexpected rhymes, and also to pay particular attention to the way that words themselves sound. The specific sounds that a word makes are extremely important (especially in free verse). For example, comedian Buddy Hackett says that words with “K,” “W” and “Z” sounds are funny… that’s why people like to say place names like “Kukamunga” and “Kalamazoo” and “Walla Walla, Washington.”

We’ve all encountered lyrics that rhyme “moon” and “June,” or “breeze” with “trees”; but take a look at these rhymes:

  • “drill a bicuspid” and “still maladjusted” (from a song in Little Shop of Horrors)
  • “Tell me, Mr. Brontosaurus, / Have you got a lesson for us?” (from a song by Sting)
  • “Enraged Doris, come back, and then / Engage for us warp factor ten.”
    (this is nonsense that I just made up — it has the sole virtue of a compound, unexpected rhyme)


Country songswriters are notorious for stretching rhymes (“Well, I got to feelin’ kinda ill, so I begged for you to take the wheel (pronounced ‘will’)”; rap artists often find extremly intricate and clever ways to work with words. But rhyme depends, for much of its power, upon rhythm — that is, the repeated pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. Rhythm creates a steady wave, upon which the reader’s ear floats.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Say these familiar lines alound, and you will hear the following pattern:

da da DUM, da da DUM da . . . da DUM da da DUM.
da da DUM, da da DUM da . . . da DUM da da DUM.

Each line features the “da da DUM” pattern (called a “foot”) four times, but note that the comma in each line comes after the first beat of the third foot. You wouldn’t recite the poem as if each foot were a separate entity — you wouldn’t say “‘Twas the NIGHT | before CHRIST | mas and ALL | through the HOUSE”.

So there are two kinds of rhythm going on here — the monotonous march of the “feet”, and the pauses indicated by the sense of the poem — poet’s use of punctuation and phrasing in order to convey meaning. You can avoid the “sing song” nursery-rhyme effect by varying the relationship between the marching of the rhythm and the flowing of the phrases. Consider the following two-line poem, by John Donne:

He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died.

Note the rhythm: it repeats the pattern “da DUM” five times. When reading this poem aloud, you would naturally end up stressing the word “tried”; but you should not punch it too hard, since the word is part of a phrase that continues on to the next line (“tried to live without him”). If you paused after “tried”, you would change the meaning of the line, suggesting that it means “He first deceased; she for a little tried [to die as well].” By running a phrase off the end of one line and onto the beginning of the other, the poet frees himself (and the reader) from adherence to a mechanical “tick-tock” rhythm.

Consider these lines, from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

All the lines share the same meter (“da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”), but one line stands out… why? Three lines are dominated by open, flowing “w” and “o” sounds; these lines all rhyme with each other. But one line does not rhyme with the others; the effect is slightly jarring. But that’s not all that Frost is doing with that line. Say it out loud, and pay attention to how the predominant “e”, “i” sounds feel — they tighten up your mouth, creating a bit of tension in your face. Even more important, what is the point of making line 3 stand out like that? Creating tension in your mouth when you say the third line makes perfect sense, because the whole poem is about the tension between the speaker’s desires to enjoy a quiet winter scene, and his obligation to get wherever it is that he is going.

Instead of simply fixating on rhyme, or on a tick-tock rhythm, focus also on the sounds of specific words throughout your poem. Even at the beginning and in the middle of each line, where you are not interested in rhyme, the sounds of your words should contribute to your poem’s meaning.

Nobody has expressed this point better than Alexander Pope, in the following excerpt from “Essay on Criticism” (1711). He lists several mistakes that poets make; at the same time, each line demonstrates the very mistake about which he complains.

These equal syllables alone require,If you say this line aloud, all the words cause your mouth to scrunch up….
Though oft the ear the open vowels tire,…but if you say this line, your mouth is forced open. (Pope says that the monotony of each line is tiring to the ear.)
While expletives their feeble aid do join,An “expletive” is a meaningless shout, like “Hey!”. The word “do” in this line is equally meaningless; it only exists to fill out the line.
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:There are no peaks and valleys in your voice when you say this line; it is very flat.
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,This line is dull in a different way — “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”.
With sure returns of still expected rhymes;Here Pope complains about, and employs, overused rhymes.
Where’er you find “the cooling western breeze,”
In the next line, it “whispers through the trees”;
If crystal streams “with pleasing murmurs creep,”
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with “sleep”;
Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the songPope’s original readers knew that an “Alexandrine” is a line with six stresses — one more than all the other lines in the poem so far.
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.See the jarring effect of the extra beats in this line? If you choose a particular meter, stick to it.

A few lines later in the same poem, Pope demonstrates what the poet should do: use the sound of the words to reinforce the meaning of each line:

‘Tis not enough no harshness give offense,In other words, your poetry should not just sound pretty…
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.… the sounds of the words should reflect the meaning of the line.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,The “s” words sound gentle and airy, like a spring breeze (which is what “zephyr” means).
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;The compound consonants “sm”, “th”, “str”, “fl”, are like bits of driftwood, bourne along by line’s lazy, flowing vowels
But when the loud surges lash the sounding shore,When you say this line, however, you can’t stay relaxed; the sounds of the words pound the inside of your mouth.
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.Here, the “r” sounds are violent and harsh.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,Just try saying this line fast! You can’t, as the next line points out.
The line too labors, and the words move slow;If you slow down to enunciate the previous line properly, you convey the image of working hard — which is exactly what Ajax is doing.
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.This line looks long on the page, but it reads quickly — like Camilla (whoever she is) zooming along.

12 thoughts on “Poetry Is For The Ear

  1. Pingback: In July, 2000, I was creating handouts on the sounds of poetry, prototypes, and writing for the web | Jerz's Literacy Weblog (est. 1999)

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  4. I really enjoyed these tips. I really understand. Absolutely love the examples and how simple the explanations were.

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