When my muse has gone on vacation, I’ve often found it helpful to focus on a single poetic technique as a way to jump start inspiration. Usually, I open an old and much-loved poetry guide to a random page and choose the first topic I see. Today, I picked up “The Heath Guide to Poetry,” (the book my 10th grade English teacher used). Much to my delight, alliteration and assonance were the topics that featured on page 208.
Poets.org has entries on both of these terms in the Poetry Glossary, under part 3, Poetic Devices:
alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds, particularly at the beginning of words — “. . . like a wanderer white”
assonance: the repetition of similar vowel sounds — “I rose and told him of my woe”
By now I’m sure you realize that these two devices have a great deal to do with the music of poetry; they’re part of what makes a poem sound like something worth reading. However, a poet can get carried away: if you overuse either alliteration or assonance, your poem will sound quite strange. “Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” is a good example of the tongue-twister that can ensue from an unrestrained use of alliteration. Keep this danger in mind! Use alliteration and assonance with care!
Here are some examples of poems that use alliteration and assonance:
Robert Pinsky: Shirt
Howard Nemerov: Writing
Edgar Allan Poe The Bells
An interesting historical tidbit: the accentual verse popular in the middle ages used alliteration as one of the defining features of the line. Each line of verse contained at least three alliterations. For example, this is from the University of Virginia e-text of Piers the Plowman, written by William Langland in the 12th century:
Thus I awaked and wroot what I hadde ydremed,
And dighte me derely, and dide me to chirche,
To here holly the masse and to be housled after.
Your poem spark: write a poem that utilizes alliteration, assonance, or both. Have fun and be creative!