Poets sometimes deliberately used harsh-sounding, unusual words in their poetry to make readers feel unpleasant. Why is that? It’s very possible that they are using dissonance, a very popular literary tool.
In this article, we’re going to learn every thing about dissonance in poetry. Let’s get into it!
What is dissonance?
Dissonance, in its most literal meaning, is an interference with rhythmic or harmonic sounds. When someone deliberately uses inharmonious words, phrases, or syllables to create a harsh collection of sounds, it is dissonance.
Dissonance comes from the Latin word “dissonantem,” which means the difference in sounds. It resembles cacophony and is the antithesis of assonance.
In our every day life, we encounter dissonant sounds all the time. A baby crying, a person shouting, or an annoying alarm are all examples of dissonance. Now that we know what dissonance is, let’s see how it’s being used in poetry.
What is dissonance in poetry?
Dissonance in poetry means a disruption in the rhythm of a verse. It’s not hard to see that using dissonance will make reading uncomfortable. So why would one uses it in their poetry?
Turns out, the very discomfort feeling that dissonance brings is the reason that it’s being used. When an author wants to make the audience feel shock or surprise, he turns to dissonance.
Sometimes, dissonance can also be used to express a certain feeling, may it be abruptness or surprise. However, poets can use dissonance to inject some humor into their poems as well.
In the end, it’s a literary device that can be used in many different situations and contexts, and the effects it brings will also be different depends on the author.
There are three main ways to create dissonance in a poem:
- Manipulate the layout of sounds: dissonance can be achieve by bringing together word sounds that contrast with one another.
- Changing rhythm: the poet can change the rhyme scheme of a poem, thus disrupt the natural flow and bring dissonance.
- Using word sounds: this is the most straight forward way to create dissonance, by bringing together unusual and harsh-sounding words.
Difference between literary devices: dissonance, assonance, cacophony and consonance
Dissonance is one of the most powerful literary tools out there, and it’s sometimes being mistaken with other literary devices. Therefore, in this section, I’m going to make an effort to clarify the confusion. We’re going to differentiate dissonance with cacophony and consonance.
- Assonance: repeated internal vowel sounds within a verse. The purpose of assonance is to produce euphoric sound, and it’s pretty much the opposite of dissonance. Assonance is usually used when the author wants to create a soothing and comfortable mood.
- Consonance: repeated consonant sounds within a phrase or verse. An author can use consonance to create an impactful and dismal mood or prose uniformity. Once the term is understood, consonance is fairly clear.
- Cacophony: a collection of loud and harsh sounds. The differentiation between cacophony and dissonance is really subtle, both refer to discordant noises that are unpleasant to hear. The key difference between two concepts is that while cacophony is used mostly in every day life, dissonance is used in various fields including literature, music, psychology, etc.
6 Classic Examples of dissonance in poetry
To find dissonance in poetry, you need to look for the absence of harmony. Below are some common examples.
1. Wind by Ted Hughes
“At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope…
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly.”
In these lines, the author uses so many different vowel sounds that they start to clash with one another. These harsh sounds come together and create a disturbing feeling that an upcoming storm brings. It immediately catches readers’ attention.
2. Susie Asado by Gertude Stein
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
This is a good example of author using dissonance to create lightness instead of tension. To create dissonance in this poem, Stein quickly repeated sounds and employed different sentence lengths.
3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.
With blank verse and variant vowel sounds, Shakespeare’s mastered use of dissonance conveys Macbeth’s desperation and his threatening attitude toward enemy.
4. Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Here, the author combined variable unstressed syllables, assonance, and consonance to create a dissonant effect. It worked out well and the poem is uncomfortable to read.
5. The Dalliance Of The Eagles by Walt Whitman
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling.
Whitman created dissonance by combining mono, bi-syllabic words with assonance, all to describe the magnificent eagle.
6. Player Piano by John Updike
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck to these keys melodies.
Updike used assonance and consonance within each line to create a slight euphoric sound. However, there are several diverse noises across the entire stanza, which contrasts each line. Therefore, the poem still has a sense of dissonance.
Dissonance is a powerful literary device. Just by creating disruption in the rhythm, it allows the author to express meaning without making any clear statements. I hope you’ve found the information that you’re looking for in this article. Poem Home has many more interesting articles like this one, feel free to check us out.
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Thomas Dao is the guy who created Poem Home, a website where people can read about all things poetry related. When he’s not busy working on his next project, you can find him reading a good book or spending time with family and friends.