Alliteration: the Onomatopoeia of Rumination

This enlightening article by Jason Kerr is published with permission.


jason-kerrI’m personally a bit of an ogre when I eat. My wife teases me about the sounds I make,
“Mmmawmnomgrmymaom….” I used to swear she was making it up, because I never heard it. The way most people never hear themselves snoring. But she kept insisting, and eventually I noticed. Especially when the food is exceptionally good, I really almost chant in a low grumbling legato of approbation.

That simple act of chewing on things and the sounds we make—internal head sounds so quiet* we don’t even notice ourselves hearing them—have formed over the ages what is almost an alphabet of soul and emotion. By the grinding of teeth and the slapping of lips we separate every bite of food into small digestible chunks, and we do exactly the same with every thought, conscious and unconscious, constantly associating sensations, emotions, and concepts with our own almost silent clicks and slurps. Ultimately, we process the entire world around us the very same way you would eat an entire elephant: one smack-lick-grumble-chomping bite at a time.

So what does that mean for alliteration? Alliteration as a poetic device gives the poet the opportunity to wrap yet another layer of sense-making around the denotative and connotative layers of poetic diction, a layer that is densely packed with intuitive and emotive force. The subtle repetitions of individual letter sounds between words** play out like a soft drumbeat of id-rhythms.

I say soft because often, at least when it’s done well, alliteration doesn’t stick out as noticeably as, say, rhyme or even strict meter. Repetition of individual letter sounds is naturally more common in casual speech, and thus feels more natural than rhyming precise ordered groupings of sounds.

As such, alliteration can often go unnoticed. Yet even when it is noticed, the effect can still be so gentle that even very intentional patterns fade into the overall soundscape*** of the poem. Notice how alliteration reinforces onomatopoeia so as to immerse the reader aurally in the setting of Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist.”

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

In “Reluctance” by Robert Frost, the alliteration starts off more pronounced, straightforward, and yet rhyme and meter ultimately overtake, so that alliteration serves a strong complimentary role to the overall euphonic:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

For a final example, listen to unabashed alliteration in full-voiced formal force. In the following excerpt from Tolkien’s unfinished master-fragment, “The Fall of Arthur,” where the caesurae make the bass drumbeat, alliteration forms an auditory cross-sectional aspect: rising timpani, the accent marks of the hi-hat cymbal and crashride, a lingering glitter of the windchime laced into the echoes:

The endless East in anger woke,
and black thunder born in dungeons
under mountains of menace moved above them.
Halting doubtful there on high saw they
wan horsemen wild in windy clouds
grey and monstrous grimly riding
shadow-helmed to war, shapes disastrous.
Fierce grew the blast. Their fair banners
from their staves were stripped. Steel no longer,
gold nor silver nor gleaming shield
light reflected lost in darkness,
while phantom foes with fell voices
in the gloom gathered. Gawain loudly
cried as a clarion. Clear went his voice
in the rocks ringing above roaring wind
and rolling thunder: ‘Ride, forth to war,
ye hosts of ruin, hate proclaiming!
Foes we fear not nor fell shadows
of the dark mountains demon-haunted!
Hear now ye hills and hoar forest,
ye awful thrones of olden gods
huge and hopeless, hear and tremble!
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth,
might and purpose that no mist stayeth;
lord of legions, light in darkness,
east ridges Arthur!’ Echoes were wakened.
The wind was stilled. The walls of rock
‘Arthur’ answered.

It does not do to simply sight-read these lines or mumble them in the corner to yourself. The music of the poem requires an embarrassingly public sort of outloudness, so that if someone caught you reading alone you would suddenly shrink.

Yet even with the tick-tock regularity of the form, reader and listener both will likely forget for several lines of recitation that there even is any alliteration. Then of course, the instant you think of it, the same becomes wildly obvious, so much that it could easily become obnoxious, like too much flavored syrup in your coffee, if it weren’t so masterfully done.

I won’t go into any specifics on the rules of alliterative forms. Let the pendulum swing back this way some other time, maybe. But I do recommend them to you for study. Many of the rules simply help to build symmetry and subtlety into what can otherwise become an awful wearisome droning. Anyhow, look into it, and let’s definitely talk about alliterative forms some time.

I’ll close with a practical comment that you can feel free to use or ignore: when preparing to write when I know that I want to use alliteration, I try to do with the writing the same thing that happens when I read really excellent alliteration. I try to forget about it.

I’ll read maybe twenty to forty pages of Beowulf or something else, and then just write. When it’s swimming in your head, it’s practically unavoidable. Of course as I’m writing I’ll notice that it’s happening, but every time I find bits that only surface after the fact.

Same thing when you read. Go back over the examples in this article and count out all the cases. There’s always one or two that slip by. Let it be like that when you write it, too. The best ninjas even know how to sneak up on themselves (Me, I’m easy: just catch me when I’m eating).

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*Present company excluded

**This is probably the closest I have to a definition for my overbroad usage of alliteration in this article. As such, I will inevitably include assonance and consonance almost indiscriminately under this term.

You may not consider it technically correct to do so. I would argue that except in terms of formal requirements in various alliterative traditions, we’re essentially talking about the exact same literary device presenting itself in the middle of a word rather than at the beginning. In fact several traditions of alliterative verse base their rules for alliteration on the sound that begins the first stressed syllable of a word rather than the sound that begins the word itself.

Since all of those traditions which have strict formal requirements for alliteration have, by definition, their own lists of rules, no working understanding of specific forms can be truly harmed by my generic misuse here. I am instead more concerned with how and why poets use the device and the impact it has on the reading of poetry.

*** “Seamus Heaney speaks of the creation of soundscapes rather than landscapes, describing a form of affinity with poetry steered as much by musicality as by meaning, or rather, where meaning adheres to a poem’s sonic effects as much as the things or themes to which it points. The notion of the soundscape underscores that attending to the materiality of language is far from synonymous with a soulless formalism; a soundscape is an auditory environment, a lived world composed of interwoven sound patterns that resonate inside and outside the self. Heaney refers to his own disinclination to follow a poem’s conceptual process, preferring, he writes, to ‘make myself an echo chamber for the poem’s sounds.’ In such cases, enchantment is triggered not by signifieds but by signifiers, not by mimetic identifications, but by phonic forms of expressiveness and their subliminal effects.”

excerpt from Uses of Literature, Rita Felski, Felski in turn references Heaney’s article “Influences” from the Boston Review.