Sound creates meaning

I’m a believer that in poetry, the sounds of words carry more meaning than the dictionary (or referential) meaning of the words themselves.  Conceptually this is known as phonethesia.

The great Richard Hugo advocated for the use of phonethesia in what may be the most useful essay ever written on how to write poetry called “Writing Off the Subject” from his book The Triggering Town:

The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject. One way is to use words for the sake of their sounds.
If that’s not good enough, here’s Robert Frost on the subject:
What I am most interested in emphasizing in the application of this belief to art is the sentence of sound, because to me a sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words.  It must do something more; it must convey a meaning by sound.

Frost was an accessible poet; sound was one of the reasons why.

How do we create sense through sound?  Through our choice of consonants and vowels–which is, of course, to say, through the sounds they make.  Take for example this line I just made up:

Alone, the moon flows down in frozen shores.

Notice, that in addition to being written in iambic pentameter, there are numerous long “o” vowels, an “oo” sound, and, for good measure, a howling-like “ow” sound. Without even reading the sentence for referential meaning, the line engenders a slow-paced sense of foreboding.   Then, when our minds try to make sense of the actual meaning of the sentence, it creates a sense of uniqueness in its implied metaphor, which would wouldn’t have existed if we’d only concentrated on writing a line for clarity.

The takeaway? Writing for sound deepens our work and makes it more unique.


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