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Poets have the whole phonetic structures of their languages to work with when they compose. Some poetic devices such as meter and rhyme are so well represented in the general vocabulary as to need little comment, but subtler effects that poets presumably put into their work, and that readers or listeners get "by feel," may benefit from a closer, and perhaps more specialized, analysis. Two examples that show particularly well how a poet slows the reader down at the appropriate spots, especially one reading aloud, are cited below. One is from Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the other from Theodore Roethke's "The Bat."

English vowels come in tense and lax pairs: beet-bit, bait-bet, pool-pull, pole-Paul. Tips of finger and thumb pressed up into the soft tissue behind the chin while one repeats beet-bit will show why they are called tense and lax. Tense vowels take longer to say than lax ones (although it is vowel quality, not length, that is distinctive in English).

Diphthongs, two vowels at a time--the diphthong in bite (a sound spelled ai in romance languages) and the au diphthong in house--also take longer to say. Other sounds that add length to words are fricatives-f, v, s, z, sh, and the voiced version of sh found in pleasure. They are called fricatives because the air flowing through the vocal tract produces friction that creates their distinctive sounds. These sounds have a duration that stops-p, t, k, b, d, g--do not have. In addition to fricatives, nasals--m, n, and the consonant at the end of sing, which is a single consonant although spelled with two letters--have duration and add length. Finally, liquids--l and r--add length.

These consonants slow things down especially when they come in clusters, for example, in strengths, which has an intrusive k in the pronunciation of most Americans, making it sound like "strengkths." This give it seven consonants, three before and four after the vowel, and make it the most complex syllable in English.

When Robert Frost gets to the heart of his poem in the third stanza of "Stopping by Woods," he uses all these devices:

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

What happens in the poem happens in the last two lines of this stanza, leading to "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," where the speaker is about to fall face-first into the snow. Start with "only," with tense vowel followed by nasal and liquid. "Sound's" begins with a sibilant fricative, followed by a diphthong, followed by a consonant cluster ndz, nasal, stop, and fricative. In the last line, "easy" has a tense vowel and fricative, and "downy" a diphthong followed by a nasal.

Add to these effects those of alliteration ("only other," "sound's [. . .] sweep") and assonance ("sound's [. . .] downy," "sweep [. . .] easy"), and the poem, which has been moving along at a fairly brisk pace, stops attentive readers--especially those reading aloud--and squeezes them through a dense sieve of sound. Then we are almost ready to fall into the snow with the speaker.

[. . . .]

In each of these rather different poems the poet has made conscious use of poetic devices . . . . They also take advantage of other characteristics of language that, regrettably, may not be so readily understood because only certain specialists have the language needed to interpret them.


From The Explicator 59.1 (Fall 2000)