Is That It? – The State of Alliteration in Poetry

By: Daniel Altenburg

The semester after I graduated from my MFA, I was in a Tucson café that made its own crepes, looking over a packet of poems with a former student. After voicing my fondness for its moves via professorial “hmmms” and “ahhhs,” I couldn’t help but point to her consistent inclination toward alliteration. And in an effort to convince her that my advice to remove the majority of it was more than arbitrary aesthetics, I said something along the lines of, “While I love the band, you don’t want to sound like an Eve 6 song.” Though I can’t remember her response beyond heard of them, I can still visualize my hand bouncing in that café to my recitation of “On the Roof Again:” “Your heinous highness broke her hymen/hey man, try to quit your crying/I know she broke your heart/but try to come, try to come down.”

I return to this memory more often than is logical, especially considering the shamelessness of how my 25-year-old self was doling out writing advice. Excuses aside, at the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why I was put off by the “excessive” alliteration, just that I was. Why it reminded me of a pop punk song from high school, though, may suggest more about the state of poetry, not only in the heads of writers, but in the heads of our culture’s presumptions about poetry.

Much like a quick search of the everyman’s memory, Googling “alliteration in poetry” results in one line examples of alliteration—especially in Poe—that you can copy for your sophomore level English assignment. Couple this with childhood tongue twisters—Peter Piper, anyone?—and you’ve got what most think about when they hear the word “alliteration.” Oddly enough, I’m not sure if this is much different than my conception of it when I come across it in a workshop, save for the clarifications between consonance and assonance. I’m not saying alliteration is unnecessary or childish or overwrought, it’s just a device that asks to be seen in a form that inherently sees literary devices. A common interpretation of Poe’s opening to “The Raven” (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”) is that the “w” sounds emphasize the weariness of the speaker, causing the reader to question what is making this speaker so weary. Is it his life? Is it his own pondering doing it? Sophomore analyses aside, what’s that say about tongue twisters? Is everything Peter Piper’s doing important? Are our constant alliterative rephrasings of his actions illustrations of his obsession with picking pecks of pickled peppers, or, perhaps, our own obsession with counting the pecks of pickled peppers poor Peter Piper picks? Ridiculous as that example is, I’m left with the thought of what I’m often left with after reading an extra-alliterative line: is that it?

Perhaps this is what my own sophomore English professor was gently hinting at when he suggested I try other literary devices in my poems. Perhaps this is why I’m so alert to their use in both my own and others’ work. Because it seems, at best, an alliterative line draws attention to the ideas/images in that line while simultaneously conveying information/ideas/images important to the rest of the poem. Arguably, lines that only do the former are outright unnecessary. That may be the kind of thing I was writing then, as I remember feeling especially pleased with my ability to string together three, maybe even four, words with similar sounds. However, even if all the parts are there, it seems almost frivolous to call alliteration a poetic device when it functions in a poem. Generalizing that poems—especially contemporary ones—are by their very nature, shorter pieces of writing, shouldn’t all the words composing it be held to some extra scrutiny—saved for some heightened level of examination we’re taught in English classes? The same point holds true for my Eve 6 example, as the alliterative part of the song is the chorus—something sung repetitiously—, adding emphasis and importance every time. So, again, I ask: is that it?

Considering the aforementioned length requirement, perhaps alliteration is for the prose poem, the long poem, a piece of fiction or non-. After all, “The Raven” is about three pages long. But why does Eve 6 pepper all their songs with it, let alone highlight the device in the chorus? Obviously, there’s something funny about that much alliteration in that small of a space being sung that quickly, and repetitiously. Here, the band recognizes the device as something that can become overwrought easily and exploits it to humorous effect. And this concept can, has, and does occur in poetry, as seen in Johannes Göransson’s beginning of his poem “Shotgun Wedding in the Ribcage of the Bourgeoisie”:

“This time around I’ll be more obscure, more

unabashedly slashed in the backseat of the cab taking

me back to the barn where I’ve tied Shirley Temple

to a chair in an apparent homage to the tenderness of

the charlatan class…”

Much like Eve 6’s ridiculous alliteration heightening the situation to the comedic, Göransson undercuts his initial declaration of being more obscure by saturating what follows with the assonance of the “a” sound, as well as the consonance of the absurd “b.” The result is an untrustworthy speaker not only aware of his untrustworthiness, but one who nearly shouts it to those looking to trust him. As such, the alliterative ushers in both the comedic and the absurd. The Shirely Temple image, then, is nothing more than a prop in a joke in a joke. This type of movement controls much of Göransson’s poem, indicating that his images may be less important than their delivery. This ability to reach the absurd is often achieved in Danielle Pafunda’s work as well, particularly in Natural History Rape Museum. Though a tonally different work, Pafunda asks if there is a line between the punishment of a rapist and victim, stating:

“The darling punishment. A graph grown boot knife

in the back of the neck. In the sorry cleft. A boot

in the neck, a blue-fisted kisser. A weft slug, a slit

knit kill prone. The punishment was well deserved.”

Functioning slightly less blatantly, Pafunda’s alliterative (or consonant or assonant) phrases (“graph grown,” “back,” “neck,” “cleft”) seem on the cusp of fruition, as if needing to assemble all of its parts before the penultimate line, the fully consonant line: “a slit knit kill prone.” In this sense, Pafunda’s sounds are the logic between the nearly absurd images. Her initial reluctance to fully realize those sounds only makes the final image that much more powerful and, interestingly, more tangible. So, though reaching the absurd, Pafunda’s control of alliteration suggests the opposite of Göransson’s: that the image is made more important by its delivery.

While the exploration of alliteration’s tie to the absurd can only be expanded on in another essay, the fact that there exists a tie suggests another viable avenue for alliteration. While, yes, our attention is drawn to these alliterative moments, the rhythms controlling the alliteration potentially manipulate how the reader’s attention is applied to the images/ideas/phrasings of the poem. Equally disarming, then, is the ease with which we approach an alliterative passage. If, upon contact, we are reminded of a nursery rhyme or pop song lyric, we are arguably the most vulnerable to emotional manipulation. This is how Göransson’s absurdities become as comedic as they do, and why Pafunda’s blurring of images is as visceral. Perhaps this is why my Eve 6 anecdote is still such a prevalent memory, why I can see my hand wisping out my recitations, why I even have such staunch opinions on the stacking of similar sounds. Whether it’s our innate inclination toward sound or the nostalgia of a simple device, perhaps, in all the complexities of reading and writing and editing and airing of our opinions, we wish for a reminder of the familiar—the counting of pecks of pickles, even—to fall back on, or perhaps, through it, elevate our thinking and writing to another potential.

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