Rhyme and Music

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Remember how in "Line and Meter" last week we encountered "alliteration" when we were discussing Old English accentual verse? Alliteration is only one of several ways to produce "music" in poetry.

Let's use Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool" (Strong Measures 38) to illustrate some of these methods. Here's the whole poem:

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.
Lots of alliteration here. Remember? Repeated sounds at the beginnings of words? Like the "l" sounds in "Lurk late" or the "str" repetition in "Strike straight."

Obviously, there's lots of rhyme too. Such as "cool. We" and "school. We" or "sin. We" and "gin. We" ... right?

Besides these "external rhymes" (those at the ends of lines), there are also "internal rhymes" (repetition of endings in the middle of lines), for example, "sin" with "Thin."

So far we have been pointing to "full rhyme" (also known as "rich rhyme"); there are also examples of "half rhyme" (sometimes called "slant rhyme"), such as "sing" and "Thin" in the middle of the next line or "real" and "school" in the first two lines.

Of the more familiar rhyme types, the one conspicuously missing is "eye rhyme" where two words look like they ought to rhyme fully but don't. Such as "full" and "lull" or "door" and "poor." Perhaps, though, Brooks wanted a deterministic pattern of sound that eye rhyme would not have enhanced.

Other kinds of sound effects have to do with the type of sound. For example, the repetition of vowels, called "assonance." Note the short "i" sound in "Sing sin" repeated again in the next line.

The echoing of consonants is called "consonance." In the opening lines of the poem, we can see the preponderance of "l" sounds. The "s" introduced in the word "school" reverberates in "Strike," "straight," "Sing," "sin," and more distantly in "Thin." The soft "g" or "j" sound in "gin" is echoed by "Jazz" and "June."

Even more interesting is Brooks's use of "pararhyme," also called "rich consonance." Notice how "l" and "t" in that order occur in "left" and "late." Or observe how "j" is paralleled with "d" and "z" with "s" in "Jazz" and "Die s(oon)" ... fascinating.

The acknowledged master of pararhyme is Wilfred Owen. Check out the opening lines of his poem "Strange Meeting":

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
The poem goes on, but this should be enough to make the point. Brilliant pararhyming, don't you think? His rhyme words here consistently use a different vowel between identical consonants. Wow. Notice too that, to up the ante a bit, Owen uses heroic couplets.

Okay, so what?

What rhyme and music do is contribute to a poem's meaning by providing sonic texture and unity -- an impression that the poem is an interwoven whole of sound and sense.

A poem's music, in great part, tells us that that poem is a poem. The play of sound is often what seems immediately "poetic" to the reader.

Rhyme and music are often inextricably tied to form as well. Brooks, for example, uses the couplet exclusively in her poem. This stanza is built primarily from rhyme. Although meter may often be involved in a couplet, the major defining characteristic is that the two lines rhyme.

Now it's your turn. Find a poem that illustrates the methods of rhyme and music. Have fun.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/23/99