Why reading your poem out loud can ruin it

A bad case of “poet voice” or an overwrought performance at a poetry slam can do terrible things to even the best poem. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something I’ve encountered a number of times when reading the work of nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson is noted for her use of slant rhyme and irregular meter. The best way to describe slant rhyme is to say it’s two words that almost rhyme, but not quite, like “see” and “deed” or “car” and “tarp.” Dickinson used slant rhyme a lot. As for meter, she had a habit of adding or subtracting a syllable here and there that effectively broke the meter of the poem.

But here’s the thing: Lately I’ve been wondering whether she was really using slant rhyme or irregular meter at all. It’s possible that her New England dialect allowed many of Dickinson’s slant rhymes to be read as full rhymes, and caused the syllables in certain words to increase or decrease.

But only when read out loud by Dickinson.

For example, take the two American pronunciations of the word “poem.” Some people pronounce the word with two syllables (“poh-em”); others pronounce it with just one (“pome”).

As an experiment, I recently wrote two poems that do or do not have correct meter and a full rhyme, depending on where in the U.S. you hail from.

“Poem” as a two-syllable word:


I have a pair of socks with holes
I really need to sew ‘em
I meant to do it, truthfully!
Instead, I wrote this poem.


“Poem” as a single-syllable word:


I went into the library
And grabbed a weighty tome
I kept it, though it’s overdue.
It’s where I wrote this poem.


In other words, if someone else reads your poem out loud, they can break your meter and slant your rhymes.

You can read more about this phenomenon, and other speculation about Emily Dickinson’s writing style, at How to Write Like Emily Dickinson.

the delve