Crafting Poetry: Dissonance

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My Curious Reading

Crafting Poetry: Dissonance









Dissonance can be a poet’s carefully deployed tool.

We achieve dissonance on the page, a visual effect, using line drops, font shifts (large to small, bold to italic, black to barely legible), ambiguous punctuation, words abutted against other words, deliberate misspellings, puns that work only in print (a point made in the cartoon below.)



Cartoon of gangsters, taking off on English pronunciation



And the matter of subject-verb agreement can produce a double-take. Let me show this, using some of my own work…some of the choices I went back and forth on considerably, before settling for a single (sometimes ambiguous) interpretation.


See how your fragile walls

Your world encased in glass

Magnify the room…perhaps


“The Cleaner Fish and the Dust Mite” (Mystery Plays, Book Two, “Mr. Boots”).


Subject-verb agreement is not so simple in poetry as in prose. Lines of verse draw meaning from predecessors, convey it to followers—and each transition, not confined to the logical ordering of a narrative sentence, can act as free agent, playing one role and then another, while the poem’s message builds. We have two things here, walls and glass together; or, we may have a rhetorical string: “How your walls…how your world…” The center line may serve as an interjection, while the last may be an imperative. All this bears on the question of magnify/magnifies.


In “Trouble the Pawn” (The Poor Belabored Beast), I’ve allowed the poem’s final line to stand, a dissonance of fair pestiferousness…a conceit, in fact, since I know of no rule in augury by offal, for entrails being collective or not.


Netted with its lolling neck

Its flipper beats and slaps

Long dead the odd sea creature is

Yet lulling waves and bloated gas

Make onlookers start

As it rises from the deck

Where next will fall the hammer blow

The augury its guts foretells


And there’s a reason for not rhyming “blow” with “foretold”. In storyline terms, the foretelling is a future menace, one of the threats dredged up with the “odd sea creature”.

I take the guts, then, as a thing of themselves, as in “the advisory panel will make its decision”, or “the congress began its new session” (both panel and congress, in some usages, can be treated as plurals); but the two ess sounds together—the way they perturb—is also pleasing.


In the Wake arc of the Folly series, Wake’s portion of “The Depth” has him narrate, as to the prussic acid:


Samuels has placed a vial

With a plink of glass his fingers snuffs

Next the basin…shall I fill it?


Wake has reason to record detail vividly in his mind, to count the ticking past of each second. He comprehends the import of this vial: Samuels’s thought for the unseemliness of the proposal he is convinced must be the only resolution; his superstitious care to stop the noise.

In this case, “his fingers” functions as a part that stands for the whole (metonymy). And so Samuels snuffs the plink of glass, but Wake is staring at each movement of his fingers, as he does so.


To me, dissonance should be a kind of aural illusion, a line that rings false; then, read twice, rings true…then false again, true again, etc. Some poems I’ve seen labeled dissonant seem more experimental: Gertrude Stein’s work, for one, where the idea seems to have been juxtaposing words and asking the reader to invent a connection.


Here are two lines from Wilfred Owen‘s “Strange Meeting”:


Through granites which titanic wars had groined

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned


The word “groined” has connotations, and this may force the reader to regroup and move forward; next, it echoes groaned. There are hidden puns here, the soldiers sleeping and groaning, sleeping possibly in death (groaning often used in poetry to describe the tomb); “titanic”, which would convey to Owen’s generation, acutely (the poet died in battle during the First World War), an ambitious failure; the architectural suggestion of the shells forming new cathedrals in the rock—and the term sleeper, a type of support in a building, for (as it may be) an arch.

“Envoi”, by Kathleen Raine, is a poem dissonant in theme, each verse ending with a twist: we are given a hawk, a tree, a rose, all returning respectively, to the poised hanging figure, the fountain of blood, and the sacrifice. The poem reads at least three ways: as pastoral musing, countered by insistent personal suffering, countered by the transfiguration of suffering into holiness. A well-known verse:


See how against the weight in the bone

the hawk hangs perfect in mid-air—

the blood pays dear to raise it there

the moment, not the bird, divine




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(2017, Stephanie Foster)



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