Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic (Chapter 24)

Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic is a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Susan Taylor Brown’s blog. Last week, Susan hosted a discussion about Chapter 11 amid all the dang LiveJournal outages. This week, we’re talking about Chapter 24: Sound: Writing Out Loud right here. 

I hope it’s OK to admit that I felt so stupid after reading this chapter (thank God the chapters are incredibly short, or I’d be a full-out moron by the end of one!). I’ve never even heard of a sound diagram, nor have I ever analyzed a poem, my own or someone else’s, in quite this way.

I’ve thought about sound, of course, in poems, but I tend to stick to the basics like rhyme or alliteration or assonance. I’ve never thought about repeated sound units like this in a conscious effort to increase them. A few times, I’ve noticed, “Hey, that line sounds extra swell because those sounds echo each other.” End of thought.

And I’ve definitely learned, in reading my poems out loud to hundreds of schoolkids, that certain poems are so much more fun to read aloud than others, even though they might all have the same precision of rhyme and meter. Again, I’ve known sound had to do with that, but I’ve never known a concrete, analytical approach to doing something about that!

Now I do.

I’m not sure I agree with Robert Bly’s insistence that a poem isn’t a poem without at least three repeating sounds in every line. But I feel an urge to go through all my existing poems and start sound diagramming and tweaking. Honestly, am I the only person who’s never heard of this? I hope not. But I feel quite gauche.

So, I’m going to give it a try, right here, right now.

Here’s a poem of mine from a few years ago. In fact, I’ve posted it here before. I’m going to use different colors to indicate some of the repeated sounds, and I’m going to focus on units of letters, not just single letters, since I already pay some attention to those.


Without plunging, a waterfall is only a river
     Praise the falling, the walling, the surprise of water standing on end

Without sinking, a sunset is only blinding light
     Praise the creeping of night and its battle for sky control 

Without night falling, the moon just hangs, a pale, cold rock
     Praise the backdrop of black, the reflected white glow of sun
Without wintering, summer overstays like holiday houseguests 
     Praise the sharp freshness of ice, the clean slate before spring

Without dying, life is a treadmill
     Praise deadlines and pressure, and the shortness to make time matter

Without ending, the story is unfinished
     Praise the anticipation, the fear, the delight of The End

–Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved

Huh. I know that’s not all of them, but still…kind of sparse on the sound cohesion. So I’m going to pick a few sounds to increase. I like the all sound and the long o and the wah sound. They’re all kind of melancholy and slow, qualities that fit this poem. I’m going to pick those and maybe one other sound and try to work more of them in.

I also am going to cut the next-to-last stanza, because feedback I got way back when was that the last two stanzas said the same thing.

So, here’s my revision so far:


Without plunging, a waterfall is only a river
     Praise the falling, the walling, of water on end

Without sinking, a sunset is wobbling light
     Praise the creeping of night and its shadowy sky  

Without night falling, the moon hangs hollow, alone 
     Praise the polished black backdrop, reflected sun’s glow 
Without wintering, summer overstays like unwanted guests 
     Praise the wandering sharpness of ice, of a snow-washed world

Without ending, the story knows triumph nor sorrow
     Praise the anticipation, the fright, the delight of The End

–Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved

Ok, there’s still lots more to work on there, but my husband set up Rock Band and the music called.  That winter stanza is really bugging me, though, so maybe I’ll be back to work on it more later. The rhythm is all wrong, it’s too long, and it feels very unmusical.

At least now I have one tool to fix that with!

So, I’d love to have you pull out a poem you’ve written (or even just a few lines from it, if you don’t have time to work on an entire poem) and do this same exercise with it. You can’t change colors in the comments, I don’t think. But share what repeated sounds you are going to try to increase and then do a quick revision and share it with us. Pretty please?

And, of course, we’d love to hear any other reactions to the chapter. Thanks for joining in!


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