Phonemes: The Building Blocks of Lyric Poetry
What Is a Phoneme?
Have you ever had the experience of finishing a poem, reading it back to yourself a day later, and (though you can't put your finger on it) knowing that something about it just isn't working? This would happen to me every time I wrote a sonnet. I would sit there scratching my head, thinking, This sonnet follows the same rules as all the other sonnets I've written, so why doesn't it sound right? It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I actually thought to look up what creates the musicality of poetry outside of rhyme and meter. I knew that words could be broken up into stressed and unstressed syllables but I hadn't thought to examine what a syllable is made of.
Similar to how we study the physical word by breaking objects into smaller and smaller pieces, poets study the music of poems by breaking apart lines into their individual words, then breaking apart words into individual syllables. At this point, the meaning of the word breaks apart and only the units of sound are left. This is where we begin to talk about phonemes.
Phonemes are distinct units of sound that distinguish one word from another. For example, p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat. Imagine that a word is like a molecule that you're breaking apart into individual elements. In this case, p, b, d, and t are elements of sound that distinguish one word from another. Over time we become accustomed to the associations we make with these sounds and the sounds create unavoidable emotional responses.
What Is a Lyric Poem?
The easiest way to examine musicality in a poem is to look at the techniques and patterns used by poets within the confines of lyric poetry. Now, you may be asking yourself, "What's the difference between lyric poems and just, you know, lyrics?" That's a tough question. Simply put, there are many types of lyric poems and the word "lyric" speaks more to certain categories of poems than any particular form. Lyric poems don't necessarily require musical accompaniment. Lyrics, in a song, require that the writer thinks about the time signature, the key, and the transitions made by the instruments.
In the past, lyric poetry often had musical accompaniment. Now there is a greater divide between poetry and song lyrics. This divide didn't matter as much when poetry was passed down through the oral tradition alone. For the purposes of this article, we're going to look at a song's lyrics and a lyric poem.
If you would like more information on how to distinguish between a lyric poem and song lyrics, The Boston Review has several essays on the subject. The essays are dense but, if you enjoy thought experiments, they are well worth a read.
Phonemes in "Sappho 31"
Phonemes and the associations we have with them don't only differ slightly from person to person but can differ greatly from language to language. The translator's job is no easy task. Translating Sappho's writing from Ancient Greek into English is challenging for even the best translator. He or she must consider the macrostructures of the poem (its tone, mood, and overall lyrical flow) with the microstructures of the poem (the individual words, syllables, and phonemes). Let's take a look at the lines in "Sappho 31" and try to imagine ourselves as the translator.
"That man seems to me to be equal to the gods
who is sitting opposite you
and hears you nearby
and laughing delightfully, which indeed
makes my heart flutter in my breast;
for when I look at you even for a short time,
it is no longer possible for me to speak
but it is as if my tongue is broken
and immediately a subtle fire has run over my skin,
I cannot see anything with my eyes,
and my ears are buzzing
a cold sweat comes over me, trembling
seizes me all over, I am paler
than grass, and I seem nearly
to have died.
but everything must be dared/endured"
The first thing I take note of is the macrostructure of the poem. There's a whole lot of desire and longing in this poem. Sappho's heart is erupting with love and admiration. How does the translator display this longing in English when the Ancient Greek alphabet is so different from our own?
The translator packs this desire into the vowels of the poem and balances that airy and breathy desire with hard consonants. Just as the speaker desires to be lost in love (but the object of her desire is out of reach), the vowels and consonants in each line create a breathy and airy feeling that is restrained by more stern and foreboding sounds.
If we look at the opening line of stanza three, we see the abundance of i sounds (sometimes sounding more like e). These i and e sounds are packed into harder s, k, n, t, and r sounds. This tension in the sound directly relates to the longing that is being expressed in the line and the strain of speaking the line (the clenched mouth shapes needed to say these words) adds to the metaphor of her broken tongue.
It's clear that the translator had to make a conscious decision to match the phonemes she used throughout each line to the tone and mood the poem is meant to create. Chances are, you are unconsciously considering phonemes every time you write a poem. Sound association is innate in all people; though it does vary from culture to culture.
Phonemes in Bob Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
Given that record companies are quite litigious, and Bob Dylan isn't too big a fan of people using his lyrics, I'm only going to dissect two verses from "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." Hopefully, this is enough to get the point across.
It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
"Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool's gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn that he not busy being born
Is busy dying"
This is Bob Dylan doing what he's best at, calling out hypocrisy. Simply telling us about hypocrisy without having the tone, mood, and sounds just right, would make for a frivolous rant, but Bob's too smart for that. What makes "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" a lyrical masterpiece is how Bob Dylan uses vowels and consonants to mirror the emotions he explores in each verse.
In the opening verses, the repeated oo sounds create a ghostly feeling. This spooky feeling is further developed by Dylan's use of hard k and s sounds. You can tell right from the get-go that this song is going to sound apocalyptic and foreboding.
As the song continues, the oo sounds fall away and ee and ah sounds work to emphasize the tension and stress he feels in response to the horrors of the world around him. The hard consonant sounds continue and become more and more central to the lyrics.
Dylan's guitar mimics the aggressiveness of the lyrics. Dylan uses pull-offs and hammer-ons rather than sweetly strummed chords. His fingers feel the stress of the music as much his throat does. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is a great example of how lyrics are as much about the sound of the word as they are about the word's meaning.
Choosing the Right Word for the Right Line
Every poet has a different process. I'm merely explaining methods you can use to break through your writer's block. Writers are often trapped by their obsession with finding the "right word." One way to escape this is to ask yourself, What's the right sound?
A fun way to practice playing with phonemes is to create imaginary words. For example:
Even though these words aren't real, I bet you've already defined them for yourself. The phonemes used in these two imaginary words (wait, aren't all words imaginary?) are so common that our minds can't resist having an emotional response.
Try It Out
Leave your imaginary words in the comment section below!