Phonetics and phonology - The sounds of poetry

Looking at the importance of sound in a literary text

Sound patterns in poetry

Here are two extracts from the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney. In the poem, a son talks openly about his perceived failures in following in his father's footsteps, namely because of his lack of skill with a spade and as a farmer.

Read them out loud:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Now discuss the following questions:

  • How does the poet use sound to evoke a scene? What does the text-world look like, to you as a reader?
  • Are words mostly mono (composed of one syllable) or polysyllabic (composed of multiple syllables)? Why might this be?
  • What patterns of phonemes can you identify that you think are significant in contributing to the poem's meaning? Be specific as possible.
  • What do certain sounds symbolise? 

Aswell as your own ideas, you might like to explore the following points:

  • This is clearly a rather miserable scene. Heaney successfully employs language that creates a certain text-world in our minds: namely, one of an agricultural setting, with somebody digging into the ground and harvesting potatoes from the soggy ground.
  • There are 35 words in this extract. Of those, 30 are monosyllabic. This might be a coincidence, but it might also be argued that Heaney chose to do this consciously. One argument is that he wants to project a 'childlike' and simple poetic voice - this is told from the perspective of a son looking up to his father, and so the naive and 'immature' use of monosyllabic words is perhaps reflective of this.
  • Plosive sounds are used to represent the spade's sharp cuts into the ground. This is most notable in the phrase the curt cuts of an edge. Here, /k/ and /t/ mimic the sharpness and precision of the spade, and the short, powerful ways in which it slices into the ground.
  • Consonant clusters and onomatopoeia in gravelly ground, raspingsquelch and slap are symbolic of the noise that the metal spade makes when it digs into the earth, as it its stone, mud and water. It could be argued that the complexity and intricacies of the speech sounds mirror the randomness of the rural earth - the soft turf, small pebbles, large stones and other hidden objects. Note the high number of consonant clusters in the phonetic transcription: /grævəliː graʊnd skweltʃ slæp/. The vocal articulators move in complex and difficult ways, in the same way that the spade does as it tackles the earth. 

Next, try doing a similar anlaysis of the sounds in a different poem, Privacy of Rain by Helen Dunmore, which you can find here.


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