Adrienne Rich's poem "A Ball is for Throwing" describes a ball sitting on the shelf of a shop.
Though the colors are bright and the ball is beautiful, she suggests that it is not alive for as long as it sits there. She says a ball can only live when it is in motion, when it is being thrown, caught, and played with. She argues that it is then when it becomes more alive and beautiful. Let's dive into some of the figurative language that helps make her point.
Alliteration is when you start several words close to each other with the same letter, for example, "beautiful ball."
The b sound is useful here because it forces your mouth to open and close. The poem is all about movement and play, and the words "beautiful ball" force your mouth to move if you are reading it out loud.
Consonance is the repetition of similar sounds and letters. It's different than alliteration because it isn't just about the letter at the start of a word. Instead, the repeated sound can be in the beginnings, middles, or ends of words.
In Rich's poem, we see consonance with the letters b and d in the lines
Is it red? is it blue? is it violet?
It is everything we desire,
And it does not exist at all.
We have this sound repeated in "red," "blue," "desire," and "does." These sounds are fairly harsh. It creates shorter sounds in the poem, symbolizing repressed movement.
Later on Rich writes the line "Like a word we are waiting to hear," which uses alliteration of the w sound to create movement. When you read this line, the sounds are wave-like and bring to mind the curve of a thrown ball.
Finally, assonance is the use of vowel sounds repeated in a poem. The line "Rounder than sun or moon" uses the "u" and "o" sounds to mimic roundness. In saying both "round" and "moon" your mouth forms a circle, and these vowels look rounded on the page.
She repeats this again with "round" and "longing" in the lines
In the rounding leap of our hands,
In the longing hush of air ...
In addition to assonance, the use of letters like o, d, p, and g create a rounded visual effect and the repetition of ing helps create movement in the lines that resembles the movement of a ball.
Generally speaking, "A Ball is for Throwing" has a tremendous sense of playfulness and childishness which it contrasts with the discipline and repression of the much of the world. Rich suggests that the ball is alive only in the act of play and that there's something wrong about it sitting in a shop as a stationary object. Rich connects this idea to the idea that queens, shopkeepers, and "collectors" have lost something by refraining from play.
Alliteration, consonance, and assonance all consists of repeated sounds between nearby words. Alliteration refers to initial sounds repeating, consonance to consonants repeating elsewhere in a word, and assonance to repeating vowel sounds.
The alliteration of "beautiful ball" and the assonance of "poised...toyshop" both work to create a sense of childlike wonder from the very start of the poem. As Rich alternates between describing the vibrancy of the ball and more abstract musings, she continues to use alliteration, consonance, and assonance to mark sections of playfulness and a sudden stop in these techniques to mark her commentary on the rest of the world. This sudden stop helps create the power of the final stanza in which the world of queens, shopkeepers, and collectors appears dull and dead.
Alliteration, assonance, and consonance all refer to the repetition of sounds within words. In "A Ball Is for Throwing," these tonal repetitions mimic the movements of the ball in the poem. The spinning and throwing motions are illustrated in the sounds of the words as much as by the words themselves. For instance, the line "We know what that ball could be"—when the ball is spinning until it looks violet—starts and ends at the same sound ("we" and "be"), and each word has sounds that mimic both the word before it and the word that follows it: "know what," "what that," "that ball," and "ball could" are all word pairs with some sound repetition. This phonic pattern represents the colors on the ball spinning into each other, and the we/be beginning and ending represents the way that, when a ball spins, it starts and ends at the same place.
Rich's "A Ball is for Throwing" argues that objects gain life and value only when they are used. She contrasts the ball sitting in a shop window, useless there, with the child's desire to put the ball into motion.
The tone or feeling of the poem is childlike, employing the simple words a child might use and a child's simple sentence constructions. It conveys the wonder of actually using a ball and contrasts this to Queen Victoria's unused doll house.
Alliteration occurs when words beginning with the same consonant are placed in close proximity. Consonance is similar, but the consonant sounds that repeat can be anywhere in the words in question. In assonance, vowels at the beginning of words in close proximity repeat.
Rich primarily uses alliteration to capture and emphasize the wonder of playing with a ball, such as in "rounding leap" and "longing rush" with their repetition of "r" and "l" sounds and in "flash of flight" with its repeating "fl" sound. We also feel the child's longing expressed through such alliteration as "beautiful ball," because the repeated "b"sounds bringing a sense of emphasis to those two words.
Consonance occurs in such lines as "See it . . . poised in the toyshop window." The repetition of "s" sounds in "see," "poised," and "toyshop" creates a sense of rhythm. So does the repeated "p" in poised and toyshop.
Assonance is less prevalent in this poem, but it can still be found in the repeated short "i" and "a" sounds at the beginning of words in the first stanza: "is it . . . is it . . . is it . . . it is" and "it does not exist at all." In these lines, the assonance is created by the simple, childlike sentence structure which shows how, in the child's mind, the ball is an object of desire because of its use value.
As you go through the poem, you should be able to find more examples of these three literary devices.