Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Sound of Sense

Where do ideas come from? What are the sources of imagination? We have our senses, and our memories; we can assemble and recall information, and reconstruct it in countless ways.

Still, these are not the primary sources of ideas for the poet. Language itself can generate ideas. Writing, as a physical and emotional act, draws forth what it is we want to say – quite often, before we know consciously.

Language is sensual; language is historical; language is animated. It is in us, but we call our first language our “mother” tongue – it gave birth to us, or we came from it.

A poet, or an artist who works in language, more generally, is someone keenly aware of the living qualities of language. Sense and nonsense share a shifting boundary; thought and sound connect across it.

We are all to some extent aware of the physicality of language: we love rhymes, jokes, figures of speech, baby-talk, jingles, and other forms that emphasize that physicality. But a poet seeks after it, and trains his or her ear (and tongue, and eye, and hand) to capitalize on it.

Robert Frost spoke of something he called “the sound of sense.” The most remarkable aspect of this – something which I think songwriters will understand – is that music often comes before the words themselves to a poet like Frost. Here is how he describes it in a letter he wrote:


(From a Letter to John Bartlett, 4 July 1913) (...) I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see the great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track. They went the length of it. Any one else who goes that way must go after them. And that’s where most are going. I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:

You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.


He says it’s too late.
Oh, say!
Damn an Ingersoll watch anyway.


No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track.

Those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence. The simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement is one sound. But Lord love ye it mustn’t be worked to death. It is against the law of nature that whole poems should be written in it. If they are written they won’t be read. The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound--pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.


I like the idea that much meaning is carried in tone; and that one can hear voices as if on the other side of a door, missing the precise words, but getting, through intonation, stress, and to some extent coloration, some essential meaning of the words.

I want to relate this concept of Frost’s to another, more broadly linguistic concept, sometimes known as “sound symbolism” or “phonetic symbolism. The basic idea is that the sounds of words, the vowels and consonants in particular, and the patterns they create, are not random, but are rather connected to the meanings of words. This is a controversial idea, because most linguistics stems from the notion that the relation between sound and sense is arbitrary. And one must wonder how it is that so many languages – thousands of languages, existing and extinct – have connected so many different sound patterns to the same basic ideas. But I have the sense, as I think most poets do, that at least in its traces, language as we understand it today owes much to the ways in which sounds were created by the body, or the way experience affected particular human beings, such that a particular sound came to be associated with a particular meaning; no doubt many time, in different ways, leading to different primeval languages, of which our modern languages are distant descendants, much changed; and the physical connections are now often abstracted, transformed, fossilized, and mostly unrecognizable. Something similar is true for the beginnings of written language, as well – but many thousands of years after the start of spoken language.

So, the poet is an archeologist, or an atavistic creature, or a prophet (if our end is in our beginning). She tries to connect the present and future of language with its past, although its most distant past is occluded.

It is useful, in training your ear as a poet or writer, to study the etymologies of words; not only for the shifting forms and meanings, but to discover the way certain forms stay the same as we go back in time, and to discover the similarities as we cross language boundaries (in particular, in the Indo-European family of languages).

To explore some of this further, I recommend:

…which offers Frost himself reading his “sound of sense” argument;

…which offers some very useful classifications of sound devices as related to various poems of Frost;

…which offers some thoughtful discussion by Carol Frost (no relation) on Frost’s poetics;

...which offers some useful information on sound symbolism.

Also, here is a children’s picture book I wrote, based on some of the concepts of sound symbolism:


  1. I liked your book. Maybe you can write children's picture books for all the points in this class. Looks like i'm on that level!

  2. It's interesting to me how there are so many different languages in the world, sounding different, looking differnt and even written in opposite ways from the english language. But they all revolve around the same concept. I've always wondered about that. Love the book. The illustration is great.

  3. After viewing Val Kilmer's movie - "At first sight", I was touched with those who are unable to see the world but use their heart to feel the world.
    During a rainy day he asked his friend to close her eyes and feel the song of the rain. She was surprised, for the song of the rain was something she never experienced with her eyes open before.
    I've always wondered, those who have never seen this world before, what would a tree mean to them? What would colors mean to them?

  4. Beside written languages, poet uses another instincts to enrich their creation. A big source for them is the sound. Someone said you can smell when you hear or you can see when you hear, that's absolutely right after we read this topic.

  5. I have always wished for writers to read their work to me as oppossed to me reading it because you get the true tone of what the writer meant in word selection. However I also like it when I read the work of say Edgar Allen Poe aloud and I can hear in his choice of language the emmense protruding darkness his pieces relinquished. I often strive to get the 'tone' across in my writing but it's so much funner to read it to the crowd with my own inflections. To be able to perfect the art of getting my tone across in my work is a big deal to me and one of my primary goals in my writing.

  6. Your wish has been granted!
    Here is the website that offered Podcast, the poets will read their poems to you.
    Enjoy it!

  7. I think an interesting writing prompt would be to use the performative constative, where language actually, literally, ontologically does something, not indirectly by convincing someone to do something, but directly. I think it would be interesting to review a list of performatives and then choose a handful to make a poem or story.

  8. For me, it is amazing sometimes to read a book or story and imagine what you will and then listen to the book on tape, especially if read by the author. There is a different pace and cadence and intimacy to the story

  9. I am not a big fan of audio books, but I do like for authors to read to me in person, even as a child I loved to sit and hear a book being read. I love the book and the iilustrations. I love reading anyway but only if it interest me

  10. Interesting piece. Sounds is a very powerful source in many facets. This piece reminded me of Michael Jackson's "This Is It." It was amazing to me to see how he used his "sense of sound" to perfect his art. There are clips in there where his back is away from the musicians but yet he found ommissions in the tones yet I've never known him to be a musician.

    Also, the sense of sounds is an unlimited possibility of whatever you want it to be.

  11. I'm generally a fan of reading books,but I have listened to an audio book on many occasions. To me there is a subtle difference between the two, and I think that language does have a large role to play in that. It's like when you said writing generates ideas, and I would have to agree. When you listen to an audio book, I think that more ideas flow into your mind as you listen activiely to what the narrator is saying. Meanwhile with reading the ideas and concepts will only come to mind when you concentrate on the passages that you're reading. I don't know if I'm making much sense right now. However, even though I like reading a book, the audio books is also another great way to open your mind.