Friday, March 9, 2012

Sarah's Poetry Corner: A Cacophony of Words

Peter Newell - Through the looking glass and what Alice found there 1902 - page 20
"The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, 
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!"
Illustration by Peter Newell
We don’t usually think of cacophony as a good thing. It’s the word people use to describe an orchestra warming up—a hundred insruments playing, none in sync, none in harmony. It sounds… bad.

Poetry often evokes thoughts of something smooth and fluid, pleasing to the ear. This is euphony. Sounds good, right?

But in truth, poetry is image in rhythm and sound. And it takes all kinds of rhythms, and all kinds of sounds.

Why is a Proser writing about poetry, you ask? Three reasons:
  1. All writing seeks to elicit emotions in the reader. Poetry just  does it efficiently.
  2. Almost all poetic techniques can be applied directly or adapted to the novel.
  3. I dig it.
According to Encyclopædia Brittanica's entry on euphony and cacophony, “Inadvertent cacophony is a mark of a defective style.” There's a simple answer to this: Don't do anything by accident.

Sometimes an unpleasant image or emotion requires sound effects to match. Something scary can be made scarier by clashing, dissonant words. Or it can be made scarier still by unexpected euphony, like opening a horror movie with a lullaby.

Perhaps the most famous example of cacophony is Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
Contrast the fluid melodies of Edna St.Vincent Millay, as in Sonnet XLIII:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain 
Under my head till morning; but the rain 
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 
Upon the glass and listen for reply, 
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain 
For unremembered lads that not again 
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, 
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, 
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: 
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 
I only know that summer sang in me 
A little while, that in me sings no more.
And because I can, I'll self-blog-publish an exercise I did with writing teacher/genius Jack Grapes, which he calls "teeth and mouth." The point of the exercise is to write something that will exercise your mouth and use plenty of teeth when you read it out loud, which is similar to cacophony. That constraint forced my mind to come up with some unexpected images. (Do try this at home; you won't believe how fun it is.)
Newspaper-Sourced Instruction to California Nature Enthusiasts
Should you come across a cougar,
hiking through sagebrush, rattlesnake country
caressed by the central star's direct heat foiling spf fifty—
Should you come across a cougar,
resist urges prompting statuesque stillness,
the benedict trick temptation to cower
from the stalker's muscular dance of strength
that shames your thumb-gifted awkward carriage.
Should you come across a cougar,
first clutch straggling children close.
Scream, stretch, enlarge,
throw backpacks, keys, recyclable bottles, rocks, twigs, shoes,
flap your unzipped puffy quilted vest to mimic the hawk's expanse,
ornithological person-beast cultivating cowardice in
the black-belt kung fu sharp-toothed rabid mouth
ultimate fighting champion
of rippled silk furred physique.
Do not approach
to waste opportunity on stupidity's cruel punishment.
You have without coincidence happened upon a puma
who arranged the tête-à-tête
in the shadows of your casual hiker's gait.
Fight back if attacked.
Emerge from this match a braggart
back in your choking concrete habitat,
but forget not gratitude
for fortune's pickled choice
for each sacred creature
for a park ranger lecture on cat-specific technique,
and for the fact
that it wasn't
a bear.

Note 1: This blog post originally consisted of only the above poem without an accompanying discussion. Apologies to my intrepid initial commenters, who may have been, ah, confused.

Note 2: MaryAnn recommended another poem: The Panther, by Rainer Maria Rilke. The words flow in a quiet melody that beautifully enhances its meaning. Rilke was known for his musicality, and if you listen to the German version, below, you will get a sense of that music even if you don't speak a word of German. Translators have a lot to think about, don't they?


  1. Did that come from the newspaper? I'm so curious to know what your plan was with that one. But I'm even more curious to know what about your day. Hope it was a great one!

  2. LOL, Melanie, you all must think I'm nuts. I promise next week's post will make sense and even attempt to be somewhat useful.

    I wrote the poem as an exercise in writing class called "teeth and mouth," which is pretty much what it sounds like. Write something that is a real mouthful to read aloud. The exercise is really useful in both coming up with new images/descriptions and in seeing how the sounds of words can add to their impact. This isn't something I call on much in my novel-writing because I've got too much work to do on story and characterization and other more basic things before I can spend time deciding whether a sentence should be fluid or percussive. Someday I hope I can get to that level of finesse ;)

    The exercise is probably most useful for poetry, short prose pieces, and children's read-aloud stories. There are lots of wonderful examples in Kipling's Just So Stories, which are absolute delights to read aloud.

  3. At first I thought you'd written it, but then I looked at the title of the post and got very confused. I look forward to next week's post.

  4. I was concerned you might have had experienced a cougar encounter. Poor Sarah, first her family eats rat stew and now they came face to face with a cougar.

    Nice to know it was just a poem. :)

    I love those big cats. My favorite animals although I'd never want to meet one outside of the zoo.

    Awesome poem. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Okay, I need to clarify since several people have asked: NO I have NEVER encountered a cougar. They are one of the reasons I have panic attacks hiking around here, especially with little kids. I am extremely nature-phobic.

    They have them at the Portland zoo and they freak me out every time we visit, because you can get so close to the cage and they are always watching and pacing and generally making me feel like they're hungry and wishing my kids were dinner. *shivers*

  6. LOL, your zoo experience reminded me of one of my favorite poems ever.

    The Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke. Here is a link

  7. Ranier Maria Rilke is one of my favorite poets, and I've never seen that poem before. I like it!

  8. MaryAnn, I'd never read that poem before, but it's wonderful. Thank you!

    I finally found some time to go back and actually make my point. I figured, better late than never :)

  9. Awesome Sarah. Very insightful. I've never thought about using cacophony and euphony to elicit an emotional response.

    Thanks for going back and making your point. :)

  10. I'm glad you went back, I love this. I love the bite and the feel of the words, and the smoothness of the other example. Too cool.


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