The Big Problem With Meter, Assonance, Consonance, & Rhyme

I could say that it’s the big problem with the artistry of poetry, but I figured I’d ruffle enough feathers as it is. No matter how I say it, however, all of these literary devices rely on how people say words, and that’s something that is simply not consistent.

When writing, we have little choice but to rely on how we pronounce words. Someone from a different region, however, might pronounce the vowel or consonant sounds differently from how we do. For example, the midwest United States tends to pronounce a “t” in the middle of a word as a “d” (“liddle” instead of “little”). That means words that have consonance for people from that region may not for people somewhere else. Vowel changes are even more drastic from region to region, affecting assonance and rhyme.

The other problem with pronunciation changes is that they can shift where the emphasis is placed on syllables. For two-syllable words in English, the first syllable is usually emphasized for nouns and adjectives while the second syllable is stressed for verbs. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to say it that way, which can make all the effort you put into the meter of your poem feel wasted (just wait until you hear someone say it completely wrong).

Sure, the dictionary gives rules for pronunciation, but no one’s going to check every word in the dictionary while writing. Even if you did, people aren’t going to speak that way simply because the dictionary said to, so why bother?

Instead, resolve yourself to the fact that people may not get the full effect of the meter, assonance, consonance, and rhyme that you intended. Whether they’re from a different region, or whether the pronunciation has simply changed since you wrote the poem 20 years ago, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be read as intended.

All we can do is write as well as we can and hope that our writing will reach others – whether the literary devices come through or not.

Top 10 Terms for Discussing Poetry

Although poetry and prose share plenty of literary devices, there are some that are more common to poetry, and it can be hard to discuss poetry without them. Here’s a few of the most important ones:

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a group of lines. It’s the paragraph of the poem, and different stanza types are named by the number of lines contained in the stanza (a couplet, for instance, has 2 lines).
  2. Verse: This term either refers to poetry as a whole or a single line of poetry.
  3. Meter: This is the rhythm pattern of the poem. If you ever learned to read music, it’s the same idea only using words. It’s generally measured in stressed (/) and unstressed syllables (u) since the way words are pronounced is what creates the rhythm pattern.
  4. Perfect Rhyme: A perfect rhyme is when two words sound exactly the same except for the starting sound (Wait, freight, and late, for instance).
  5. Rhyme Scheme: A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyming words at the ends of the lines, so a rhyme scheme of ABA means that the word at the end of the first line rhymes with the word at the end of the third line (but not the second).
  6. Assonance: This is when words have matching vowel sounds (such as “meet” and “unity” – note that the spelling doesn’t matter).
  7. Consonance: This is when words have matching consonant sounds in the middle or end of the words (i.e., “little” and “bent“).
  8. Slant Rhyme: This is cheating at rhyme. It’s not perfect. Either only the suffix rhymes perfectly, or there’s a vowel/consonant sound off at some point in the series.
  9. Internal Rhyme: Internal rhyme is when words inside the line rhyme.
  10. Alliteration: Two words have alliteration when they both start with the same consonant sound (who and have).

These are only the tip of the iceberg: Meter and stanza types alone could add another 10 at the very least (and without breaking a sweat). These 10, however, make a good start.

If All They Get Are Dull Readings, No Wonder Teenagers Loathe Poetry

In my regular job, I write educational material for teenagers, and their reaction to poetry is almost always “ugh.”

Now, they’re teenagers, so “ugh” is one of their main reactions to anything; however, many of them really, sincerely loathe poetry. Some have enough trouble reading already (literacy in our country is really going downhill), and others have only experienced poetry as technical analysis or as a horrible, dry reading. When you read poetry with the same expression as reading a recipe for meatloaf, of course it’s not going to be entertaining or interesting!

Unfortunately, due to copyright limitations, reliance on written materials, and the censorship that goes with trying not to offend any parents, I can’t share with them the videos of spoken poetry that would be most likely to change their minds – videos like Katie Makkai’s “Pretty,” where the poetry is about modern concerns and subjects and is read with feeling and meaning.

Isn’t it amazing what a difference that makes?

My Grammar Pet Peeve Is Direct Address. What’s Yours?

The funny part about learning grammar well is that it turns grammar mistakes into nails on a chalkboard. Honestly, the screech of nails on a chalkboard is less aggravating. Since perfect English usage is almost unheard of (in speech, online, etc.), most English lovers learn to live with some errors or go mad from all the screeching. At the same time, we inevitably have specific ones that we can’t stand: pet peeves for English usage.

Besides general homophone errors, one of my pet peeves is direct address misusage. If you’ve never heard of direct address, it’s exactly what it sounds like – it’s when the speaker directly addresses a comment to someone else and names him/her. The part that most people forget (or don’t know) is that there’s supposed to be a comma separating the name of the person from what is said to that person.

For example, “Merry Christmas Bob!” should be “Merry Christmas, Bob!”

Why does it matter? (*adjusts soapbox and steps up*) Well, it entirely changes the meaning of the statement. If you leave out the comma, you’re turning “Merry Christmas” into an adjective, as if you’re trying to differentiate which Bob you’re talking about (you know, the one who says, “Merry Christmas” all the time. Even at Easter.). That would be fine if it were what the person was trying to say. Usually, it’s not, but that comma gets left out all the time.

One of the biggest culprits is the sports fan. When rooting for a favorite team, it should be “Go, team!” (Replace “team” with the name of whatever team you’re rooting for.) Instead, this comma is omitted from sports paraphernalia all over the place from posters to shirts to billboards. No one seems to care that leaving out the comma makes the team’s name into a verb. Or maybe it’s a location. It’s really hard to tell when the word is used in a way it was never meant to be used. (“Go Wolverines!” – how do you wolverine? “Go Yankees!” How do you Yankees? It makes no sense.)

Of course, if you point this out to a sports fan who is not also an English person, you’ll get a disgusted/scornful look (like what are you talking about? Everyone knows what it means.). And maybe when it comes to grammar, ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, once you learn the comma is meant to be there, it’s hard to ignore its absence (And the temptation to grab a marker or spray can and fix the error).

That’s the problem with learning English well. Once you learn the rules, you can’t help but notice when they’re blatantly broken, and unfortunately, no one else seems to care. We hapless English lovers must turn to therapy, bars, and online rants to soothe our poor tortured minds.

Speaking of which, want to rant about your grammar pet peeve? I can make sympathetic noises with the best of them.

How Would You Start A Christmas Carol?

What is Christmas without A Christmas Carol? I’ve watched two versions so far (The Muppet Christmas Carol and Mickey’s Christmas Carol), and I was struck by how differently the two approached the introduction of Scrooge: the Muppet version chose to use explicit characterization while the Mickey version used implicit characterization(See Show – Don’t Tell for more info on explicit v. implicit characterization).

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Although a the scene opens with background comments that help introduce the setting (and sneak in some inside jokes), the Muppet interpretation really starts when Gonzo (A.K.A. the Narrator, Mr. Charles Dickens) breaks the 4th wall and paraphrases the first line of Dicken’s novel. Then, as Scrooge walks onscreen, the background cast starts to sing about how cold, mean, and grim Scrooge was.

I admit that Scrooge does act pretty grumpy and cold as he stalks through (which is implicit characterization); however, the explicit characterization is really obvious. They don’t try to hint at what Scrooge is like. They go right out and say it.

This is Ebenezer Scrooge
Oh, there goes Mr. Humbug
There goes Mr. Grimm
If they gave a prize
for bein’ mean
The winner would be him

No one’s really paying attention to implicit characterization at that point unless it disagrees with what the people are saying.

The blunt option works for them in this case: it lets them introduce a bunch of characters, provide humor through the song, and set up a sort of parallel frame for the story. Could they have done all that with implicit characterization? Yes. On the other hand, breaking the fourth wall and bluntly telling us how nasty Scrooge is – all that fits the Muppets to a T. Start how you mean to go on, right?

Mickey’s Christmas Carol

This movie starts with a song, too, but it’s a background song over the credits. The sketches of the characters make for a clearer characterization than the song does (and that’s not a lot). Also like the other, the images pan through a city street with other background characters. That’s where the implicit characterization starts.

As Scrooge crosses the street to his counting house, he dismisses a beggar’s request for a penny. In case that wasn’t enough implicit characterization, they go on to have Scrooge talk to himself as he examines his sign, and that one brief conversation is enough to tell us all we need to know about Scrooge.

                        BEGGAR: Give a penny for the poor, gov’nor? Penny for the poor?
                        SCROOGE: Bah. [He walks on then pauses at his sign.] My partner,
                        Jacob Marley, dead seven years today. Oh, he was a good’n. He
                        robbed from the widows and swindled the poor. In his will, he left
                        me enough money to pay for his tombstone, and I had him buried at
                        sea!

There’s no big parallel setup and no blunt characterization. But it works. It has humor (if a little darker), it’s own 4th wall break (he talks to the camera for that last line), and it communicates Scrooge’s character clearly.

I can’t really say that one of these is better than the other – they’re such very different styles – but I think it’s fascinating to see how two such different methods can introduce the same story. And my favorite part of it is that both methods work.

Now, that’s something to think about, isn’t it?

The Holidays Are a Great Time For People Watching (And Writing About Them)

Remember the people watching writing prompt? It’s fun under normal conditions (and great for characterization research and inspiration), but it’s even more interesting during the holiday season.

See, on an average day, you get fodder for how people act on average days. For many people, the holidays are not average days. No, during the holiday season, people work unusual hours, spend their off hours decorating or shopping, and in general are much more emotional (whether they’re exceptionally angry, frazzled, happy, generous, etc.).

If you want to see human reactions when their filters are worn low, go to a mall during the holiday rush. Pick a seat with a view at a bar. Better yet if you’re in an area where there are shops or activities people can walk to, find a seat by a window or outside. Order yourself a nice drink, have a pad and pencil ready, and watch the masses of people go by.

During the holiday rush, you never know what you’re going to see.

Worldbuilding Without Traditions Feels Fake

December is one month where many different cultural holidays overlap. Even those without strong religious beliefs often have certain activities they associate with the holiday season. That makes it a particularly appropriate time to talk about traditions and worldbuilding.

As far as I know, every single culture in existence has traditions that it relies on (they are generally different from culture to culture, but every culture has some). Whether they started for practical reasons, superstition, or simple happenstance, traditions set rules that society reinforces and that can be exceedingly difficult to change. That makes traditions vital to worldbuilding.

First off, not having traditions is liable to make the world seem a bit flat or unrealistic. Like ignoring the everyday stuff, forgetting traditions can weaken your worldbuilding.

It also misses a major opportunity.

Don’t forget that traditions set rules. That makes them absolutely fabulous for building characterization as well as complicating and driving the plot. A tradition that doesn’t fit with what the character wants to do establishes instant conflict. Feeling obligated to uphold a tradition despite difficult situations can cause a character to do something foolhardy or reckless. Missing traditions or adjusting to the strange traditions of a different culture – there are so many ways for the world’s traditions to tie the characterization, plot, and worldbuilding together (talk about useful tools!).

Even something as simple as celebrating a nationwide holiday can have a big influence on the story. Think about how it changes our own lives: travel, shopping, decorations, music, extra religious ceremonies, and stores being closed (to name just a few).

How will holidays affect your world?