Lesson No. 4: Musicality in Poetry


Sound is what helps us put information to heart. Think about the jingles you learned in grammar school to memorize language rules, the scientific method, the colors of the rainbow—there was a sound property that keeps this information stored in us. I even still use some of these songs! To this day, we still remember the poems we memorized as children, the sounds and flow of the language. Content can engage us and haunt us, but it’s sound that will put the words in our heart.

So how do we make our poems memorable? There are many factors that can be considered when it comes to the musicality of a poem, but here I have a few:

  • Language: An important choice when it comes to the sound of a poem (as well as its meaning at large) is the choice of language and diction. Is the language accessible and colloquial? Is it otherworldly and poetic? Is it didactic? How does this choice change how we understand and hear the poem? Accessible language may make the piece more relatable, and carry the sound of a day-to-day conversation, while biblical language may create a different sense of authority—maybe even change our perspective of what world we’re hearing the poem in. The language choice may help ground readers into sensing whether a poem is in a real or surreal world (or perhaps even juxtaposing our perception of what world we’re in). Take a poem you love and transpose the language level of the poem (e.g., transpose Danez Smith’s Dinosaurs in the Hood into formal language. Transpose Kubla Khan into colloquial language). How does this change the sound and meaning of the poem?


  • Rhythm: This is the pulse of a poem. A poem, like a song, has rhythm to it. This doesn’t always mean employing a formal meter, but it can. Maybe it just means an awareness of the use of stresses in your lines. Maybe it means maintaining a certain syllable count. Take one of your poems and try marking the stresses. See if there’s a “natural rhythm” that your lines fall into.
  • Rhyme: Most of us aren’t huge fans of end rhyme. When I started out writing, it was all I wrote. But I quickly felt limited by it, and thought they made my work sound too “sing-song-y”. This doesn’t mean we should dump out everything we know about rhyme. If you listen to some slam poets on Youtube, you’ll hear that they incorporate rhyme and use it as a venue for creativity, not a limitation. You’ll also notice that a positive to rhyme is its memorability: when a poet uses rhyme, it makes a poem easier to memorize, or in the case of a slam poet’s reading, it makes memorable sound moments for the listener. Poems can incorporate slant rhyme, and use internal rhyme to engage the reader without being too predictable.
  • Repetitions: There are several types of repetitions that can be implemented in poems. Poems often have some sort of refrain: whether it’s an image that returns as the poem progresses, or a sound, or a structure.

We can have repeated sounds in poems. Sylvia Plath is known this—a great example is in her poem “Mary’s Song”, where we hear a strong “a” sound in the first stanza:

The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.

The fat

sacrifices its opacity…

A powerful use of repetition is through parallel structure, where a sentence structure is used in consecutive sequence to reinforce an idea. A favorite example of mine is the biblical Job 38-40, where God questions Job. The chapters use parallel structure with repeated questions such as “Did you” or “Have you” to show the limits of Job’s human knowledge. We also discussed last week Eugenia Leigh’s Psalm 107, which uses the parallel structure of “Praise him” to juxtapose the scene she’s experiencing. This week, we also have Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses,” which always returns to the title refrain.

We can also use the repetition of a specific word or phrase. Take a look at Danez Smith’s Dinosaurs in the Hood. Make sure to not only read this poem, but to listen to him perform it. Notice the strength of the repetition of “& no one kills the black boy.” As he reads it, his performance intensifies. Even reading it on the page, we feel the intensity and significance of this phrase. If he only said it once, how would this change the poem?

Reading a poem out loud is a great way to figure out how your poem is functioning: both logically as well as musically. Pick a poem of yours and read it out loud. What parts are you excited to read? Which parts do you get bored and start speeding through? Try reading it in front of an audience (this can be one person). When do you get cues that your audience is engaged?

I’ve found that there’s certain poems I love to read for their musical quality, but also because the content is more engaging with an audience than on the page. For example when I do readings, I always read: “Being Mistaken for your Father’s Wife”. This poem (I think) is more successful orally than visually. Why is this? It’s hard to articulate. There are sounds the poem has that come across stronger when heard rather than seen. The content also creates a response in the audience, which in turn energizes me as I read. There’s a connection then, between the reader and audience, which can’t be fully recreated on the page.

Listen: Because we’re talking about the sound properties of poems, I think it’s very important that we hear some poems read aloud. While I strongly encourage you to read aloud the poems in this week’s packet, it’s also important to hear the poets read their own work. How do they present their work? Do they use verbal strategies to highlight certain parts of the poem? Do you prefer the poem on the page or the auditory version, and why? Some of these are slam poems—how do slam poems function differently than print poems? What is the effect of this? Does it work for you, and why?


PoetryI_Week4_Packet. If some of the auditory poems interested you, try to find them in writing, or other poems from these poets on the page. How do they function differently than their auditory partners? If you want some great classic poets that are known for their musicality, check out Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sylvia Plath.



Writing Exercise

Option 1:

Go through a dictionary (ideally a print one, not online) and browse until you find a word that intrigues you based on sound. You can look at the meaning, and find inspiration in that as well, but the goal of this prompt is to focus on sounds. Write a poem where your ear leads you—consider the Jabberwocky, which makes no coherent sense. Don’t worry about this poem being coherent. When you have a draft done, read it out loud.

Option 2:

Another option is to base a poem off of a sound, an otomotapoea. Take a sound that you love and start the poem there. How does the literal sound function (e.g., the practical function of a dog “bark”)? How does the sound musically function? (e.g., what can be done with the sound of the word “bark”?) Find alliterations, rhymes, and just play with the sounds. Have fun with it. Once you’re done, read the poem aloud.

Optional Exercise: Find a poem you love and memorize it. Recite it, and record yourself reading it. What auditory properties of the poem do you love? Feel free to upload your recordings to the forum if you’d like!


Meg Eden, FacultyMeg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com. 


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