by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and Gillian Clarke
Assonance is made by vowels that echo each other. That is, the sounds made by A,E,I,O,U, as well as W and Y, and all the combinations those letters can make. Read any good poem aloud and you’ll hear the assonance sing.
Read aloud to the class the poems included below. Then, using the article, help the children to understand what assonance is. Then let the children read each poem for themselves, maybe murmuring the words aloud, or reading to each other. Encourage them to listen for assonance in the poem.
‘O,wild west wind, thou breath of autumn’s being’ wrote the poet Shelley nearly 200 years ago. You can hear the west wind in the first 5 words.
There are words made of nothing but vowel sounds: Where, why, away, oh, woe, you, I, we, ah! Try making a poem out of just those 9 words. Notice some of those words in the poem ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?’ by Christina Rossetti.
Who Has Seen the Wind?
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you,
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I,
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
‘‘Breaking Stones’ by Gillian Clarke is another poem where assonance plays a part. It is about poor people who used to earn a little extra money doing this hard work long ago. The poem repeats one main assonant sound: the long ‘o’ of ‘bones’. The sound ‘o’ is full of sorrow. We cry ‘Oh no!’ in pain or sadness. Then there’s a long ‘a’ in ‘aching’ and ‘breaking’, and short clicky sounds in ‘picking’, ‘tarmac, ‘track’, and much more, for these are poetry’s tricks.
Out in the dusk
day after day
summer and winter,
Nothing but dirt tracks,
nothing but muddy ruts
for a horse and cart,
till they smashed stones
Under the country lanes
where we dawdle in summer
swishing at nettles with sticks,
are their broken stones.
Under the tarmac of every road,
lie the old tracks
and the stones they broke,
the stones they sold.
Winter and summer
stones for bread,
and bread for stones,
till their old bones ached
from breaking stones.
The most important thing about reading a poem is to read first for pleasure. Let language flow. Then follow its narrative, still listening to the words. Words come first, then meaning. Ticking boxes for metaphor, alliteration, assonance etc, will ruin appreciation of a poem.
Background history to ‘breaking stones’
A hundred years ago poor people could earn a little extra money by breaking stones from the fields to sell to the road builders. They were usually peasant farmers who collected the stones from the land. It was back-breaking work, and the reward was small.
1. Encourage discussion which unravels the poem’s ‘story’. Let the children discover the poem’s meaning.
2. Help the class to ask questions about the history of roads. Do they know that every road was once a dirt track? Where did we get hardcore for road building in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before there were diggers, lorries and cranes? Many B-roads in country areas were only constructed in the 1950s, or even later.
The idea for this poem came from a real scene recorded in the journal of a poet who walked past Gillian Clarke’s house a hundred years ago. The old farmer who lived there then was called Benni. The poet greeted Benni, who put down his pick and said:
‘Stick to your books so you won’t have to break stones when you’re an old man like me.’
The poet stopped to help him, and wrote about it in his diary.
Once the poem has been read and understood, it can be fun to find examples of such things as assonance, alliteration, rhyme, etc. After finding the assonance, and discussing the effect on the poem’s meaning, ask some questions.
1. Is assonance is a kind of rhyme?
2. Do these poems rhyme at the ends of the lines?
3. Can you hear internal rhymes? Compare the use of sound in the two poems. How does it work?
4. In ‘Breaking Stones’ the lines are short. What is the effect of the short lines on the rhythm and meaning?
5. How many beats in each line? (NOT syllables)
6. Can you hear Benni’s work rhythm in the words?
1. Split the children into groups, and get them to plan how to read the poem aloud. They might add actions, a simple instrument, percussion, maybe. Or they could just use their voices to express the rhythm.
2. Think about the jobs people do. Find phrases, using assonance, to describe work.
3. Write the entry in the poet’s journal about seeing Benni breaking stones.
People who did monotonous or heavy physical jobs, like Benni, often sang traditional songs as they worked. These songs were called work ballads. The beat of the ballad matched the rhythm of the work. Their bodies kept tune with the song. It helped them to keep going and to find a rhythm their bodies could swing to, like a miner wielding a pick at the coal-face, for instance, or Benni breaking stones.
4. Write a work song, a jogging rhyme, a tennis song, a skipping rhyme, a swimming song, perhaps a ballad. See the rhythm section for information on ballads.
5. Write a piece about someone working, using assonance to help you express what is happening,
6. Name the tools, describe the movements and skill.
7. Search for poems about people working.
8. Think about all the people working at this moment in or close to your school. Cooks cooking. Gardeners growing. Binmen bundling. Bricklayers barrowing. Write about somebody doing something, and use some of the poetry tricks you have learned.