Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sue Ellen Thompson on Sound Effects in Poetry

When I first heard my teacher at Middlebury College read the opening lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Autumn Refrain”—

The skreak and skritter of evening gone
And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
The sorrows of sun, too, gone…the moon and moon,
The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
In measureless measures, not a bird for me
But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
I have never—shall never hear…

--I knew that sound played a magical, musical role in poetry. In those two harsh, made-up words—skreak and skritter—lay the essence of autumn, of brittle leaves blowing over bare pavement. Stevens uses alliteration as well as repetition of whole words and phrases to underscore the melancholy and inevitable nature of the season, and in the end I cared less about what the poem meant than about how it felt in my mouth as I read it aloud.

When I started writing my own poems several years later, I failed to understand how sound could be used to embody and convey my feelings. I suppose I thought that if I occasionally threw alliteration or repetition into a poem, I had paid my dues. To go beyond that seemed forced and manipulative. I think it was because sound, to me, was merely a surface effect—not a deep, visceral one.

In my Oct. 9 workshop, “What Sound Effects Can Do for Your Poetry,” I will talk about some contemporary poems in which sound plays a crucial role. I will introduce workshop participants to the link between certain vowel or consonant sounds and human emotions, and I’ll explain how choosing words on the basis of not just what they mean but how they sound can help a poet convey his or her feelings in a more subtle, convincing way.

The sound effects I will examine in detail include assonance, consonance, alliteration, anaphora, internal rhyme, and onomatopoeia. These are among the most basic and essential tools that all poets should know how to use. Whether you’re new to poetry or have been at it for years, this workshop will give you something to think about the next time you sit down to write.

Sue Ellen Thompson is the instructor for the upcoming What Sound Effects Can Do for Your Poems workshop at TWC on Sunday 10/9. Sign up for her workshop here.

Sue Ellen Thompson (www.sueellenthompson.com) is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Golden Hour (2006), and the editor of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Her work has been included in the Best American Poetry series, read on National Public Radio by Garrison Keillor, and featured in U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s nationally syndicated newspaper column. She taught at Wesleyan University, Middlebury College, Binghamton University, and Central Connecticut State University before moving to the Eastern Shore in 2006. She was awarded the 2010 Maryland Author Prize from the Maryland Library Association and will be teaching at the University of Delaware in the spring.

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