Poetry Terms: Musicality
The relationship between music and poetry is romance—so much so that the “musicality” of poetry endeavors as much conversation and analysis as the intricate movements of today’s best composers. Today, we’re going to dig deeper into how musicality is built according the classic critic Kenneth Burke—explore the gritty details of concealed alliteration, acrostic scrambling, diminution and augmentation.
To consider the musicality of a poem in English is to consider two essential ingredients: the tonal sounds of the vowels and consonants, and the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm (or meter) is fascinating and worth your research, but not our concern today. We’re going to explore here the tonal sounds poets use to build musicality.
Kenneth Burke and Sylvia Plath
Some techniques of tonal musicality you likely already know from school: alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc. These show up in every poet’s glossary, for good reason.
However, some techniques are more obscure in analysis, though nearly as prevalent in practice. Kenneth Burke, one of the founders of transformative New Criticism movement, wrote poetry, literary theory and criticism until his death in 1993. Part of that great body of work is a small essay, originally published in a 1940 issue of Poetry under the title “On Musicality in Verse.”
Within his essay, Burke—like the surgeon who has forgotten more about anatomy than any of us will ever learn—dissects some lines of Coleridge in order to answer a riddle we’ve all faced in our readings: “There were many passages that seemed to have a marked consistency of texture,” he begins, “yet this effect was not got by some obvious identity of sound, as in alliteration.”
Here, we’re going to bring his analytical discoveries to light not through Coleridge, but rather Sylvia Plath & her poem “Morning Song,” a beautiful work about the birth of her child. We’ve made it a rule to never miss the chance to talk about Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
Read Burke’s original essay to learn more about the concept of phonetic cognates, but essentially, the argument for concealed alliteration is that the repetition of phonetically related consonants is a subtle and effective way to build musicality.
The basics: the same way we make the m sound with our mouths, we make both b and p, and further, the v and f sounds. The sounds d, t, and th similarly are related to the n shape of our mouths.
“All night your moth-breath”
In the 10th line, we see this concealed alliteration play out.
n _ t _ _ th _ _ th
And here, in line 13, we see the splendidly concealed alliteration of m cognates beginning with the m in “stumble:”
“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral”
m b f _ m b _ , _ _ v _ _ f
Acrostic scrambling, as described by Burke, is when a pattern of consonants (and their cognates) is set, then repeated in a scrambled form.
“A far sea moves in my ear”
We can see the consonants of the first half as:
f _ r s m
And the second half following with similar sounds, in a different order:
v s _ m _ r
Can you find the acrostic scrambling in the lovely phrasing of 16th line?
“Whitens and swallows”
Diminution and Augmentation:
Diminution and augmentation, Burke explains, are musical terms describing the ways that composers draw half notes into later quarter notes, or vis a versa. This happens with consonants in musical poetry—producing those textures of sound we know are good but can’t quite put our finger on why.
Diminution shows up in that stunning first line when the space between consonant sounds is shortened in later repetitions.
“Love set you going like a fat gold watch”
Notice how the consonant patterns of v – t, f – t repeat with a shorter space between:
Love set > fat —— v_ _ t > f _ t
And similarly with the g and l sounds.
going like > gold —— g _ _ l > g _ l
Augmentation is the opposite, when the space between the sounds is stretched, as in the second line:
“The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry”
midwife slapped > footsoles —— f s l > f _ _ s _ l
Examine poetry with this focus on tonal patterning and you’ll begin to see why some poems are held more preciously than others. By no means is this an exhaustive list of ways in which poets manipulate sounds to land pleasant on the ear—Burke even includes more on tonal chiasmus and guttural repetitions. We highly encourage you to explore his thoughts further.
A note: did Sylvia Plath set out to use concealed alliteration and augmentation effects in her lines? We can’t know, although probably not. But—as hollywood wisdom has it: practice waxing cars and you’ll learn kung fu.
Read poetry for cognate families and phonetic reversals and you might learn how to make music.