Much of what makes poetry poetry is the sonic quality of words—how the words sound. Beyond communication, beyond context, beyond meaning, the sounds a poem makes ought to ping around and bounce off one another in combinations that make music in the reader’s ear.
Among the most effective tools a poet can employ to make music with words is the repetition of sounds. Rhyme, of course, immediately comes to mind when speaking of repetition of sounds. It’s a poetic technique used since ancient days, and one that will continue to contribute. But, while rhyme is the most obvious repetition, it is not alone. Assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), consonance (repetition of consonants), and alliteration (repetition of the initial sound in words, most often consonants) are more subtle, but equally effective in the hands of a master poet.
As an example, look at (listen to) Carl Sandburg’s short poem “Grass”:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Note the repeated long “i” sound in the first line in “pile” and “high,” repeated with “I” and “I” in line three, and again in “pile” and “high” in lines four and five, where the phrase that encompasses those words and sounds is repeated.
Back to line one for the repeated “aw” sound in “bodies,” “Austerlitz,” and “Waterloo.” Then, in line three, the “uh” sound in “shovel” and “under,” echoed again in line six.
Line seven gives us the alliterative “t” in “two” and “ten,” and the repeated “k” sounds in “ask” and “conductor,” which echo the sound from the previous line’s “work.” Lines eight and nine both start with “wh” in “what” and “where,” and there’s the short “i” in “is” and “this” in line eight.
And the poem wraps up with two short lines that are echoes of sounds and words heard earlier in the poem.
I can hear it now—someone, somewhere, is saying, “Well, sure, that’s fine for them fancy poets. But what about us cowboy types with scuffed-up boots and sweat-stained hats and faded Wranglers and Western lingo?”
The answer is simple. Cowboy poets have the same tools at their disposal as other poets. And the best cowboy poets, no matter when or where, pick up those tools and put them to good use—including repetition. Let’s look, for brevity’s sake, at just the opening and closing stanzas of S. Omar Barker’s classic poem “Horses Versus Hosses”:
I heard an oldtime cowboy
swappin’ off some drawlin’ talk
About them nags men used to ride, who didn’t like to walk.
He spoke of them as hosses, so I up and asked him why
He didn’t call them horses. Well, a gleam come in his eye,
And here is what he told me—be it right or be it wrong—
Some salty information that I’d like to pass along:
So you can have your horses,
with their hifalutin’ gloss—
I’ll take four legged rawhide—or in other words, a hoss!”
We’ll not worry about the end rhymes, but will stick with assonance, consonance, and alliteration elsewhere.
The first line of the poem is a festival of assonance, with all the “ah” sounds lined up in “swappin,’” “off,” “drawlin,’” and “talk.” Line two gives us the repeated short “e” and “m” sounds in “them” and “men,” and the long “i” in “ride” and “like.” The fifth line is replete with “r” sounds in “here,” “right,” and “wrong,” and there’s the repetition of “be it” that precedes the words. The next line takes off with an alliterative “s” with “some salty,” with another “s” later in the line in “pass.” Alliteration rears its head in the first line of the final stanza, this time with the “h” sound in “have,” “horses,” and “highfalutin,” and “r” consonance is celebrated in the final line in “four,” “rawhide,” “or,” “other,” and “words.”
Don’t stop here. Look at other poems. Rather, listen to them, whether hearing them in your mind or with your voice. You’ll notice repetition of sounds used repeatedly in the best of them.
All this assonance and consonance and alliteration is no accident. It may not always be deliberate—it may be instinctive or intuitive—but that does not make it any less real. For there is always a different, lesser word that would, on a surface level, suffice. But when the choice is before them, hard-working poets choose words that sing what needs to be said rather than merely say it.
And there’s a reason poets use repetition as a tool to make music in poems. While many, maybe most, readers will not realize or recognize, on a conscious level, those subtle repetitions, the subconscious senses them, the ear hears them, and, most of all, the heart feels them.
So if you want to be a poet, rather than just a rhymer, use repetition.
I repeat: If you want to be a poet, rather than just a rhymer, use repetition.