Exercise One: Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

These are more commonly known as the sound devices we use in poetry. They appeal to the reader by making a mental "sound" (and, of course, an actual aural sound if read aloud). Let's use a portion of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" to help us to define the three most common sound devices:
It was many and many a year ago,
     In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
     By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
     Than to love and be loved by me.
Alliteration is the repetition of the sound at the beginning of a word, sometimes it is the first whole syllable. In Poe's poem, we see alliteration in the repeated "m" of many/many/maiden/maiden/me. Check out Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" for an example of alliteration (and lots of assonance, too).

Step One
Take a sheet of lined paper and write the alphabet on one side. Next to each letter, write a series of three words that all begin with the same sound. Remember that the sound, not the letter, is what is important. Your list for "c" will be quite different if you begin with "cat" (caught, cork, can't), "church" (children, challenge, change), or "cycle" (censure, cell phone, celebrity). Some letters, like x, may be too difficult so skip them if you want. The point is practice, not torture.

Step Two
Now, go back through and add another word next to each list that has the same sound but a different spelling - for example: "cycle" suffice, science, Siamese, etc. Once you have a grasp on these, try to pick a few and make coherent phrases out of them like, "lovely lemon lollipops" or "brightly burning branches."

Assonance is the repetition of an internal vowel sound. It can be a long vowel, like slow/grow/follow, or it can be a short vowel sound like clique/lip/stick/rig. In Poe's poem we see that ago/know/no and sea/Lee/me are examples of assonance. Gwendolyn Brooks' much anthologized "We Real Cool" is a great example of assonance.

Step Three
Using an internal rhyme is almost always better because you can hide the rhyme, make things seem a bit less sing-songy. On your same sheet of paper, turn it over and make a list of all of the vowels, giving yourself three lines each for each vowel - these are for long, short, and irregular vowel sounds (certainly there are many, many types of sounds for a vowel, but we'll just stick to three). Now, just as you did with alliteration, you are going to make a list of three words for each vowel sound. Here's an example for "a":
  • a (long): slave, pay, praise
  • a (short): rather, flat, matter
  • a (irregular): attack, slap, laboratory

Step Four
A slant rhyme is a rhyme we often use with assonance because we can usually get vowels to sound almost like one another. Slant rhymes are really useful when you are working with forms because you have so many rhymes you must create to make the form work. With your initial list, add another word to each that is a slant rhyme. Here's the "a" list with a slant rhyme added to each:
  • a (long): slave, pay, praise, egg
  • a (short): rather, flat, matter, laughter
  • a (irregular): attack, slap, laboratory, act
Step Five
Again, now that you've had some practice, try to make a few phrases that make sense like "blow the snow to and fro" or "the stream, the leaves, and all our griefs."

Consonance is the repetition of an internal or ending consonant sound. In Poe's poem there is the "d" sound of and/kingdom/maiden/lived/loved and the "n" sound in many/and/maiden/Annabel/than. William Blake's wonderful poem "Never Seek to Tell thy Love" and Joshua Wiener's "Shame" are examples of how to use consonance in your poems.

Step Six
Repeat Step One and Two, but this time use your alphabet to create end sounds. For example, for "k" I might write "trick, beak, sleek" for Step One and then, for Step Two, I would add "romantic" and come up with a phrase like "I lack the back to talk smack - be right back!"

Step Seven
Finally, bring it all together. Choose a few of your best phrases from the exercise and try to use them in a poem that emphasizes sound.

A Word of Caution and Encouragement
Sometimes (really, most of the time), exercises like the ones presented here and throughout Seasons do not end with a complete poem - that is, a poem that is good enough to submit to a magazine or read in public. Ultimately, you have to be the judge, but allow yourself at least two or three revisions for every poem. More importantly, allow yourself the pleasure of getting to know the textures of language. Just as cooks know they will make many, many dishes that will never be tasted by a customer (and probably should never be tasted), we, too, should create knowing that sometimes we will produce pure rubbish - which is fine; that is how we learn.