Reading Poetry: Alliteration

Hey! The text below is the transcript from a new video project. My goal is to share a little about poetry terms and techniques each week(ish). Poetry can be hard to get into, and I hope that sharing a little bit about what I’ve learned might make reading poetry more enjoyable. I am by no means an expert, and there will be information that I don’t communicate well or that I don’t even know. But I’m going to do my best. Putting myself out there feels scary to me because people can be cruel, but I’m working on my confidence so I’m going to give it a try. 

When I was learning about poetry in school, I remember being taught a bunch of terms like iambic pentameter, anapest, enjambment. I only remembered those words long enough to pass a test or a class and then I immediately forgot them. And I was someone who liked poetry! But back then I thought it was mostly boring and I decided that I would never read Shakespeare again. And I have kept good on that promise for 14 years. 

Now that I get to choose the kind of poetry I read, I’ve realized that all the poetry techniques and terms that would put me to sleep in school are actually really interesting and are being used by all kinds of poets, not just the old and/ or dead white guy ones. 

So today I’m going to make a case for the poetry jargon of our youth. The technical terms aren’t that important, but understanding how poetry works can make reading poetry more enjoyable. Plus knowing some fancy poetry words is a great way to make yourself sound smarter. Today I’ll be breaking down the term, ‘alliteration,’ what it means, and how it works in a poem. 

Alliteration is the repetition of the first letters or sounds in neighboring words. Sometimes it is called initial rhyme because the repeated sound is at the start of the word. Some examples of alliteration on the first letter in neighboring words would be ‘wicked witch of the west’ or ‘fresh flowers from the farm.’ An example of an alliterative sound would be, ‘gym junkie,’ where the sound repeats but not the initial letters. 

So how does this work in poetry? While most of the time we read poetry on the page, it comes from a long line of oral storytelling traditions. Some of the first poetry we encountered were probably nursery rhymes and tongue twisters, which have loads of alliteration. Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Dr. Seuss used alliteration as well like the line, ‘Through three cheese trees, three free fleas flew,’ from Fox in Socks. Alliteration is easy to remember and repeat because our brain likes patterns. 

When we speak, we stress different sounds, syllables, and words to highlight meaning and nuance. The same thing happens in poetry, the poetry word for this is meter. Think of meter as the rhythm of the poem. Alliteration often shows up to enhance the meter. When alliteration is happening on the stressed syllables and words in a line of poetry, that is when we can hear the music of a poem. Here are some great examples to check out:

From Flores Woman by Tracy K. Smith

Light: lifted, I stretch my brief body.
Color: blaze of day behind blank eyes.

From I am Trying to Break Your Heart by Kevin Young

I am hoping
to hang your head

on my wall
in shame—

the slightest taxidermy
thrills me. Fish

forever leaping
on the living-room wall—

The tongue twister factor of alliteration slows us, the readers, down. Because most people don’t speak in an alliterative way, we notice right away when a poem or song lyrics have it. Alliteration can be a way for the poet to highlight the rhythm and content of their poem. Alliteration can reinforce meaning by slowing us down and making us pay closer attention. 

What are some poems or lines of poetry that have some great alliteration? What are some other poems terms or techniques that could use a refresher? Let me know! 

For more information on alliteration click here.