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Alliteration in Poetry

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This article is about: literature

I’ve slowly begun to realise something about my taste in poetry, and I wonder how much this is because of my Welsh heritage. As a result, I’m diving more into traditional Welsh poetry, and really enjoying what I find.

The very fact that poetry is somewhat inaccessible drew me to it. I’m one of those oddballs who revels in the company of unusual people, and who seeks out friendships with people who others find difficult to understand. So poetry was a good candidate for me from the start.

Due largely to F Scott Fitzgerald (who I got into very young), and another writer I liked (science fiction author Dan Simmons), I got heavily into Keats, and through him John Milton, Byron and to a much lesser extent Tennyson and Wordsworth.

The descriptions in the works of these poets is delicious, even sumptuous. Keats especially wants us to swoon and even expire because of the beauty of the physical sights around him. And the way he conveys the power of what he sees is amazingly beautiful.

But I’ve recently discovered other authors that for me at least equal if not surpass Keats in my personal taste. And this is because of the words they write, not the scenes they paint.

Philip Nikolayev

I have no idea how I stumbled on the Moldovan / Russian / English poet Philip Nikolayev. I know I joined a Facebook group and that was where I first found his translations of Osip Mandelshtam’s own poems from Russian.

But I loved his keen sense of alliteration. Within each line he places such delightfully similar-sounding words that for me began to exceed even the profound pleasure I got from the deeply meaningful poems I’d read so far.

Insomnia, Homer, taunt sails: my lips have lisped
Down to the middle the detailed list of ships
That long brood and angular train of cranes
That rose above Hellas once on wings of waves.

In the first line, the alliteration is in the sound at the start of “lips” and “lisped”, and is carried on in the second line’s “list” and “ships”. It’s very playful.

I don’t know how much of this poem has been written by Nikolayev, but I imagine it’s only the ideas that have come from Osip Mandelshtam: each language has it’s own forms of poetry that are I think unique to that language, and you can’t translate them directly.

Which is now why I lament that there isn’t more of Raymond Garlick’s poems online that I can share with you.

Raymond Garlick and Anglo-Welsh poetry

It was quite by chance that my wife gifted me a volume of Raymond Garlick’s poems last year. But during his lifetime last century he was regarded as one of the principal Anglo-Welsh poets.

That’s a bit of an odd term. Let me explain what is meant by “Anglo-Welsh”. When you hear that expression, it means poetry and literature that’s written in English by a poet that lives in Wales or who has Welsh cultural influences.

His poems didn’t so much paint pictures of the landscapes of South Wales that he was familiar with as make you think about his personal connection with them. And he used alliteration extensively to convey that.

To you I give a golden garden, Wales
To play in: half a hundred voels and vales
Shall be your toys, and you shall sing and laugh 
amid a noise of flights of nightingales

To me this poem sounds very rich (as in chocolate cake) because of the frequency of alliterations, “golden garden” and “half a hundred”, “Wales”, “voels” and “vales” … he didn’t happen upon these as if they were coincidences: alliteration is woven in the very fabric of his verse.

This brings me to the most well known Anglo-Welsh poets: Dylan Thomas. Which is funny, because I used to really hate Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas

When I was younger and listened to recordings of Dylan Thomas reciting his own poetry, I was completely unimpressed. As well as verging on the nonsensical (this was “Under Milk Wood” instead of the far more poignant “Fern Gully”) it sounded like he was in some sort of trance, as if words were tumbling out of him in what I considered to be a monotonous tone.

I didn’t appreciate that he was tapping into many hundreds of years of Welsh tradition. And Raymond Garlick was my doorway to understanding how that works.

Welsh Medieval Poetry

The forms poetry takes is unique to each language it’s spoken in. To translate a poem is to take it’s ideas and try to convey them in another language; or else try to convey the way it sounds. One or the other must be sacrificed.

But let me try to help you understand why that isn’t always necessary:

Gwae'r gwan dan oedran nid edrych, ni chwardd,
ni cherdda led y rhych 
Gwae ni wyl yn gynilwych
Gwae ni chlyw organ a chlych

This is a form of medieval Welsh poetry called “cynghanedd sain”, and to me it seems remarkably similar to the alliteration (a term we use for poetry written in English) of Raymond Garlick’s poems and the cascading rhythym of Dylan Thomas’s as well. The words tumble and fall, trip, skip and scatter in interesting ways across the page.

I’ve been reading about this effect in an article by Eurys Rowlands in the 4-volume “A guide to welsh literature”. In that essay the author notes that English poetry is created to be more appealing to the eye. You see that in a lot of Romantic poetry: they’re describing a scene or event before them, much like painting with words.

Welsh poetry is entirely different: it’s written to appeal to the ears. I can’t imagine you’d ever get awful things like trying to rhyme “eye” with “symmetry” just because it looks right. Apologies William Blake but I just can’t forgive that one.

So you see, I don’t need to translate it for you to be able to enjoy it. As long as you enjoy the way it sounds, that is the real power of the verse. It’s meaning can be an enhancement.

And for me, that means I have found an interesting way for me to learn the language, and that’s something I’ve really struggled with over the past few months: I don’t easily succumb to things like “gamification” so Duolingo isn’t a good fit, and I don’t have time for a regular scheduled course.

However, I do have time to translate the odd bit of poetry. I make the time, because it’s something I really enjoy.

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“Wisest are they who know they do not know.”

— Jostein Gaarder