children's book author and educator
Barbara Jean Hicks,
It’s the last weekend of National Poetry Month for 2013. I’ve enjoyed talking about poetry and sharing poems here and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/barbarajeanhicks) throughout the month of April. Poetry has a language all its own, and even if the writer in you doesn't consider you a poet, understanding and employing this special language can make any piece of prose you write sing like a poem.
Like many other forms of literature, poetry makes use of imagery, metaphor, symbol, allusion, connotation and tone to communicate an idea and produce a desired effect. It is the music of language, however, that some writers feel sets a piece of writing apart from its literary counterparts as the thing we call “a poem.” Edgar Allan Poe described poetry as “music combined with a pleasurable idea,” for instance. Laurence Perrine’s classic text on poetry, Sound and Sense, posits that the poet uses verbal music to enhance meaning and communicate an idea more fully.
But musical language is not just for poetry. If you have a story draft completed, particularly if you write picture books, check it against the list below. Does your manuscript utilize any of these musical devices? Can you find ways to tweak your language to include more verbal music?
My picture book Jitterbug Jam opens with a long sentence employing alliteration, with many “b” sounds repeated. (You’ll also find alliteration in “fraidy-cat” and “fooling”):
Nobody believes me,
and my brother, Buster, says I’m a fraidy-cat,
but I’m not fooling you:
there’s a boy
who hides in my big old monster closet
all night long
and then sneaks under the bed in the morning
to scare me.
Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds (free and easy; mad as a hatter)
These lines from my picture book Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli illustrate a combination of alliteration and assonance:
We’d rather snack on tractors
or a rocket ship or two,
or tender trailer tidbits,
or a wheely, steely stew.
Those particular lines also illustrate two additional poetic devices:
Consonance: the repetition of final consonant sounds (tractors, tidbits)
Rhyme: the repetition of the accented vowel sound and all succeeding sounds (two, stew)
A Short Lesson on Rhyme
All rimes are not created equal. In masculine rhyme, the repetition of sounds involves only one syllable (two, stew or support, retort). Feminine rhyme involves the repetition of two or more syllables (spitefully, delightfully). Rhyming words can come at the ends of lines in a poem (end rhyme), as above, or occur within lines of poetry or prose sentences (internal rhyme), as in the example below from my prose work in progress, Abelard and the Bad-Weather Why-Bother Blues. Notice the alliteration and assonance in this short paragraph as well as the internal rhyme:
Winter loped in like a lean gray wolf and circled the town. It howled and it growled and it thumped down on its bony behind and stayed.
One more note: Approximate rhyme includes words that have any kind of similarity in sound (yellow, willow or lightly, frightful), and is probably more appropriate for most prose works than is true rhyme.
The trick to using rhyme in a way that doesn’t annoy editors who say they “don’t like rhyme” is to use it in such a way that it doesn’t call attention to itself and it doesn’t compromise the meaning you’re trying to convey. Nothing is worse than a contrived, tortured rhyme!
One of the nicest reviews I received for my concept book I Like Black and White noted that the rhyme seemed “organic,” that is, that it grew from the text rather than being forced on it. You’ll also notice alliteration in this short poem that comprises the full text of the book:
stinky, slinky, large and small,
wiggly, woolly, short and tall
stripes, patches, squares and spots—
lots and lots and lots of spots!
twinkly skies, snowy lands,
music, dancing, feet…and hands!
Because I grew up in a home filled with music and literature, including poetry, I find that using musical language comes naturally to me, and using it in my writing gives me great pleasure. My best advice for writers who want to enhance their works with musical language: Listen to music and read more poetry!