Daily Archives: March 20, 2011

Dissonance and resolution in poetry

I was going through some old notebooks and found this:

With this my guilt how shall I live
Unless, my darling, you forgive
Me? Can you? Yes, I know you said
That God forgives, but God is just
A word which you can use instead
Of “I” and which means no one. Must
I turn to Him and not to you?
I guess that He will have to serve.
God only knows what I shall do.
I guess I’ll get what I deserve.

I can’t be sure how effective this is, since I’m the one who wrote it, but the idea is to create an effect analogous to dissonance and resolution in music. (“The rhetorical trope of deceiving expectation,” writes Bacon in Novum Organum, “is conformable with the musical trope of avoiding or sliding from the close or cadence.”) Expectations are set up, violated, and then fulfilled after all in an unanticipated way.

The first foiled expectation comes at the end of the fourth line, where both the rhyme scheme (afterĀ aab, he should expect b) and the familiarity of the phrase should lead him to anticipate “God is dead,” but what he reads is “God is just.” This sets him up again, since the context should lead him to misinterpret it to mean that God is just (as opposed to being merciful). The fifth line violates this expectation, forcing him to reinterpret “just” as an adverb, but at the same time it fulfills the previously-violated expectation by saying something which is very close in meaning to “God is dead” and by ending with the anticipated b rhyme.

The word “serve” at the end of line 8 also plays with expectations, since “do” would have fit just as well and would have rhymed with line 7, but I can’t really say it violates an expectation, since at this point the reader isn’t sure whether to expect a couplet or a quatrain. Then the end of the poem resolves an expectation which had been left hanging for a few lines by referring back to the idea of justice.


Is this a legitimately useful technique in poetry? I’ve been playing with it off and on for a while now (see “Dear Old Bill” and “No Freedom to Fight For“), but it’s always been just that — playing with a technique, not really writing poetry. Nor am I aware of any real poet who has used it successfully.

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