Friday, 6 May 2016

Sound clusters

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Onomatopoeia and various other factors influence the choice of which sounds are used in a word (see "The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound"). If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. Derek Attridge in "Peculiar Language" calls them nonce-constellations, writing that "The operation of nonce-constellations is probably more significant than genuine phonesthemes in onomatopoeic effects", citing John Hollander.

The significance of these patterns is unclear. In "Choosing between sound and sense" I quote from people like Bunting for whom sound was a generator of meaning, and from people like Valéry for whom sound was important but independent of conventional meaning.

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc., that are used in Formalist verse. With free verse these dispersive, irregular patterns are the only patterns left. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers, but critics often pick them out. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's "Ceasefire"

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

"Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim" comes from "Talisman", by Peter Dale. In Agenda 33.1, W.G. Shepherd wrote about the phrase -

Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t

Here's part of a review by Forrest Gander of Jorie Graham's "The Scanning" (Boston Book Review, Summer 1997)

We hear first the echo of "kiss" in "its" and "mathematics". But even before those three notes are reinforced by "hiss", "missed," "distance," and "pianissimo," Graham introduces a counterpoint, the growling consonance of "glint," "gripped" and "glides" and the long o's of "show" and "over". Look how the word "show" recollects the second syllable of "harrowing" from the second line, and prepares our ears for the deep vowels in "pianissimo," "telephone,"


Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

is described thus by David Trotter ("T.S. Eliot and Cinema", Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006))

The intensity of Prufrock's arousal produces or is produced by an intensification in the verse. By comparison with its sparse and evenly paced predecessor ("and white and bare"), the line describing the hair on the women's arms seems positively swollen: the echo of "lamplight" in "light brown hair" and the internal rhyme on "downed" and "brown" fill it from within with the sameness of sound, with emphasis (p.243)

This kind of criticism raises various issues

  • whether all the perceived patterns exist - they may be the result of selective highlighting in the text. "Lit. crit. has a very bad record for selective quotation and selectively quoting supporting evidence while excluding all contrary data points." [J.C.]
  • if these patterns exist, are they accidental (i.e. are they as likely to occur in non-literary language)? Texts (particularly literary ones) will have bunched patterns of sounds. For example, while writing, one's short-term memory will contain recent sounds which may encourage the further use of those sounds, thus leading to clumping (echolalia).

Computer programs might be used to help resolve these issues, though quite what output they should produce is unclear. A few years ago I wrote a program that counted fricatives, plosives, end-rhymes, etc. It did quite well at identifying sonnets but it couldn't report on sound clusters. It could begin to convert these sound patterns into graphics. The graph below was an early attempt, showing the concentration of I (the bottom surface), W and L (liquid) sounds in the 1st stanza of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
   The lowing herd wine slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
a color-coded graph

The furthest edge represents line 1, the nearest edge (along the axis that runs from 0 to 10) represents line 4. Note the humps on the top surface at line 4, syllables 2 and 4 corresponding to 'leaves' and 'world' in the text. Note also the long ridges on the top surface along the 2nd and 6th syllable marks - indeed, many of the 'L' sounds fall on stressed syllables. But such pictures don't show a landscape which corresponds to how the sounds affect me. Perhaps the graphs should emphasise stress and end-rhyme more than they do.

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