Sound and Sense

If ever there was occasion for a thesaurus, a poet working on sound is it. Our culture is so visually oriented, we are less attuned than previous centuries to the meaning that sound itself conveys. To double check a poem’s sound, go through each line, looking at the individual letters in the words. Every time there is a cluster that has soft sounds (such as l, m, n, ng), ask if such sounds are a good match for the mood of the scene being described. When soft sounds predominate, the poem has a harmonious, soothing tone—fine if that suits the subject. However, a beautiful ring unmatched to the sense (as in badly written traditional verse) likely helped turn many 20th-century readers against forms using metre and rhyme. Similarly, when groups of letters have harsh sounds (such as d, t, k, z), check if they support or conflict with the mood being aimed for. If harsh and soft sounds occur in equal proportion, they cancel each other, and the overall effect is neutral on the ear—why many have complained that free verse is no more than prose broken into lines. To use an analogy to painting, it’s not just the colours on the canvas, but also the quality of each line (curved, jagged, thick, thin) that affects interpretation and appreciation of the composition.