The most marvellous feature of all languages is the hardest to master, yet beautifully easy to use: prosody. Have you wondered what is the magical power that turns ‘Tu viens demain.‘ to ‘Tu viens demain?‘ Or how does, perhaps, the lively, surprised
transform into a breath of relief
How can we read the nervousness in a person’s voice when they say ‘I’m fine’ after having been to hell and back? What conveys the sarcasm in one’s voice whenever it’s raining cats and dogs and one says: ‘What pleasant wheather we’re having!’
Indeed, my keen highschool self: it is a matter of intonation. But that’s not all there is. Prosody is the collective of all non-grammatical aspects of a language, and so it is the definitive je ne sais quoi of human speech. Pitch, loudness, rhythm and tempo: these are concepts we generally do not examine, but we use and notice all the time.
So rejoice! Know that there is true magic in the language you speak. However, as any other skill, this magic needs to be cultivated, educated and practiced.
Red Velvet a Baamkuch
‘I ordered Red Velvet cake,
For, the first time I loved, my love
Fancied the redness of velvet.
I imagine he saw the passion of the colour
And the softness of the texture.
It was maybe that, like water for chocolate,
He ate cake for loving; I uphold this tradition
Of dissatisfaction to remind myself of my roots,
To not forget where I arrived from,
To know that one day, like him,
I’ll find my other half:
I celebrate and dream of a sweeter future
In a bitter present.
What did you get?’
‘Well, I bought this Baamkuch, which is
very nice! It reminds me of my birthdays when
my mother used to make it. It also has a nice
Some of my poems aim to convey the experience of being a foreigner in Luxembourg, and this is one of them. You will have noticed that there is no rhyme scheme – this is a rarity, but not entirely exceptional for my writing.
This is an example of how syllable stress plays an important role even in seemingly inocuous, free-verse texts. Oftentimes people read my works with a prosody that is different from the one I intend on. For instance, where I would read:
‘I ordered Red Velvet cake, / For, the first time I loved, my love, / Fancied the redness of velvet. / I imagine he saw the passion of the colour / And the softness of the texture. / It was maybe that, like water for chocolate, / He ate cake for loving; I uphold this tradition / […] What did you get?’
A friend enounced:
‘I ordered Red Velvet cake, / For, the first time I loved, my love, / Fancied the redness of velvet. / I imagine he saw the passion of the colour / And the softness of the texture. / It was maybe that, like water for chocolate, / He ate cake for loving; I uphold this tradition / […] / What did you get?’
As the prosody changes, the emphasis and focus of the work is also altered. In my reading (literally when I read the poem out loud), I aim to convey that the main concerns of the poem:
- the evocative memory of the redness and smoothness of velvet; OR the imposing voice of the speaker
- the mnemonic visual and tactile sensation; OR the light-hearted desires of the speaker
- the witnessing of emotion; OR the speaker’s fantasy
- the uncertainty about the other’s experience; OR the intense emphasis on the comparison that follows
- the stress on the interlocutor’s presence that establishes a parallel and comparison; OR a merely casual question
- and so much more…
P.S. An intertextual reference you might not have picked up on is in the phrase ‘like water for chocolate’, which references a Latin-American novel of the same name, Como agua para chocolate.
Whilst reminiscing about the first part of this blog post I would like to further enhance the notion of “syllables” and pacing. How does stress matter and what are the different effects it can create? How does it shape the flow of a poem? Let us have a look shall we.
You picked out your frame and you have a general outline of what and how your poem should look like. Your poetic canvas is now ready to be used and molded to fit your needs. One essential device that helps you in the shaping and forming of your poem would be the syllables.
Look at syllables like a useful tool in the creation of a sound picture. Depending on how you shape your poem, you convey a different sound image. Keep in mind that poetry, in essence, is meant to be read. I am well aware that this might sound redundant BUT remember the aforementioned examples of prosody and how small altercations construct and convey different meanings, emotions, and expressions.
Let us take a look at participles (these -ing or -ed things that alter verbs and so on) and how they might help in the shaping of a picture. I would like to have a glance at an excerpt of an upcoming poetry post and analyze the use of participles and how they shape imagery and spacing within the poem.
Ever raging, ever trembling
Thunder roaring, sky is changing
Wind strong, air is shaking
Gaping rifts, ground is breaking
Aeolian voices fading
Final blows trading
Whilst we might lack the full context of this poem, we can already deduce two instances of shaping and sound creation. Firstly, we have a simple tool, the good ol´commas. They create magical breaks withing your reading and adapt the pacing. If you are unsure what I mean by this just read your poem out loud. How does it flow? Should I break up my sentence in two? four? How does this alter the reading or the image you project?
Furthermore, looking at the bolded participles we might be able to to have an interesting thought. I will not bore you to death with the phonetics in regards to the -ing ending but just look at the sound pattern. Hypothetically speaking we could omit the comma usage and we would still have a pause within the sentence due to (I am very sorry Misses Grammar Teacher, I am sure Flame will elaborate on the phoneticism 🙂 )
FLAME: I have been asked to give some “phonetic insight” on this phenomenon known as the present participle (not gerund!). Observe how the monosyllabic <shake> /ʃeɪk/ ends in a velar voiceless stop /k/, yet with the exquisite inflection it ends in a softer, nasal sonorant /ŋ/. You have been brought one step closer to final enlightenment.
To finish this off: Try to find a rhythm for your poem, and maybe create your poem through a rythm. Pauses, breaks, and the general sound imagery represented within your poem greatly helps you in conceptualizing and refining your poem.
Further reading on sound devices:
There are a bunch of different “sound devices” such as alliteration, assonance, consonance and many many more. We could go into detail (I mean we might even do that in later blog posts) but we have to understand the underlying concepts to fully grasp the importance of sound in poetry. I could try to ramble on and on about the different devices but I much rather have a nice definition at this point which will enable you to understand the main ideas.
Sound devices are resources used by poets to convey and reinforce the meaning or experience of poetry through the skillful use of sound. After all, poets are trying to use a concentrated blend of sound and imagery to create an emotional response. The words and their order should evoke images, and the words themselves have sounds, which can reinforce or otherwise clarify those images. All in all, the poet is trying to get you, the reader, to sense a particular thing, and the use of sound devices are some of the poet’s tools.
Glossary of Poetic Terms
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(Credits to Magali Speicher for the picture of us in the thumbnail.)