by Gillian Clarke
Alliteration is the recurring sound of a consonant. That is, the sound of any letter except a vowel. Just to remind ourselves, of the first six sounds of the alphabet, B, C, D and F are consonants, A and E are vowels.
Sometimes several consonants play together, weaving in and out. Alliteration comes naturally to all of us, including poets. Without even thinking of it we use it in nicknames, find it in comics and nursery rhymes. From my childhood I remember Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat, Lucy Locket. Advertisers exploit it. Poets sing it. Children chant it. Poets using Old English over a thousand years ago, and even earlier in the much older British language (Welsh), relished alliteration. Here are a few selected examples from the AQA anthology:
In Seamus Heaney’s poem, Perch, listen for the ‘r’ sound in ‘runty and ready’, and ‘f’, ‘n’, ‘l’ and ‘d’ in ‘the finland of perch, in the fenland of alder’. You’ll find such sounds in almost all of Heaney’s poems. In Digging the ‘spade sinks’ into ‘gravelly ground’. In At a Potato Digging the workers form ‘a higgledy line from hedge to headland.’ These are the very sounds of the earth, the flow of water, the suction of mud and the beat of tools and work.
In my (Gillian Clarke) poem, Baby-Sitting hear the ‘s’ in the first line, like breathing: ‘sitting in a strange room listening’. The baby ‘is sleeping a snuffly, roseate, bubbling sleep.These are snuffly sound. ‘Catrin’ s hair is ‘straight strong long’. The Field-Mouse begins, ‘Summer, and the long grass is a snare drum’, and ends with three lines full of ‘b’ sounds, a few ‘t’s, and again that sighing ‘s’:
‘their bones brittle as mouse ribs, the air
stammering with gunfire, my neighbour turned
stranger, wounding my land with stones.’
Note the first two lines of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Havisham: ‘sweetheart bastard’, and ‘wished him dead’ It’s a shock to see such words as ‘sweetheart’ and ‘bastard’ side by side. One is tender, the other is angry. It’s the ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that connect those words, and ‘w’ and ‘d’ in ‘wished him dead’ underline the anger. Note ‘midnight’, ‘magnificent’, ‘mute’, ‘mate’, ‘mind’, in the first three lines of Stealing.
In Simon Armitage’s Homecoming, listen for ‘c’ sounds in verse two:
‘The second, one canary-yellow cotton jacket
on a cloakroom floor, uncoupled from its hook,
becoming scuffed and blackened underfoot’.
The words are commonplace, but the rhythm and sound of the consonants are pleasing.