Alliteration and Assonance
Alliteration is a poetic device that uses the repetition of consonant sounds that appear close together in the poem. It is similar to rhyming, but the sameness of sound appears at the beginning of the word rather than at the end. This technique gives interest and delight upon reading aloud. Sandburg’s writing is designed to be read aloud—he uses alliteration in the consonants of repeated stressed syllables. The letters b, d, and s are prominently used in the alliteration of this poem. Assonance, or the repetition of a vowel sound, is often combined with alliteration. In this case, u is used after d, a is used after b, and i is often used after s. When the poem softens in tone and the sound of the blues sets in, t is used after s.
Onomatopoeia is the use of a word that imitates the sound it makes. It gives richness and sensory perception to the poem as the word sound is its own meaning. Words such as clang, crash, bang, and boom demonstrate the sounds they indicate. The clanging of the tympanic percussionists voices the cacophonous sounds associated with a backstreet fight that ends crashing down the stairs. The owl sound and the bee sounds are other examples of onomatopoeia. ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ makes use of the device in a musical fashion.
The word drum sounds like the noise the instrument makes. Banjoes can bang or strum. A tin pan can pound or swish. A bass drum can fire off booms like a bang of bullets from motorcycle or a loud backfire of exhaust.
The poem is written in free verse, which means there is no strict rhyming or meter, a style characteristic of poetry before this time. Other poets who used free verse were Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and others who were considered modern poets. North Callahan quotes Sandburg in Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works as saying,
“Free verse is the oldest way. Go back to the Egyptians, the Chaldeans. The ancient Chinese were writers of free verse. . . . Read the orations of Moses, the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for free verse. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the highest examples.”
Much of the poetry written today is in free verse style. It allows for more emphasis on mood, imagery, and use of words that can create a tone. However, because ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ is about music, and Sandburg was also a musician, there is a rhythm associated with the poem that cannot be analyzed by poetic meter.
Personification is a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are treated as if they have human attributes or feelings. In ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ the saxophones are wailing and the trombones are weeping. The treetops are whining, a racing car screams, and the green lanterns on the steamboat appeal to the stars.
A simile is a device used in literature in which one thing is seen as similar to something else, often by the use of the word ‘‘like’’ or ‘‘as.’’ Sandburg tells the jazzmen to groan like the wind in autumn and to scream like a racing car evading a motorcycle cop. He compares the booming of the drums and other loud percussion instruments to two people fighting, tearing at each other and scrambling down stairs.
Sound and Silence
Sandburg uses sound in his poetry, and in ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ he wants his reader to hear a jazz song. Music has to have contrast in intensity, rhythm, and mood to be compelling. The volume of the poem shifts from moderate to loud to soft. Lines 1–6 are moderately loud, lines 7–12 rise from moderately to very loud, and lines 13–16 wind down softly. In a musical piece, the score would be marked mezzo forte, fortissimo, and pianissimo. The saxophones, banjoes, trombones, and sandpaper blocks contrast with the clamor of the percussion instruments, clanging the sounds of the city. The mood and image change quickly with the riverboat’s eerie night owl song.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Carl Sandburg, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010