Alliteration is a major feature of “Prayer Before Birth.” Generally speaking, alliteration intensifies the poem’s images and ideas, making scary things scarier and hopeful things more hopeful. The speaker uses language playfully, packing the poem full of similar sounds.
The first example of alliteration plays with this childlike tone. In the poem’s second line, the speaker expresses a fear of “bloodsucking bat[s],” along with other quite cartoonish creatures (e.g., ghouls). This section might lure the reader into a false sense of security by listing things that aren’t really, in truth, very frightening—the kind of threats and dangers found in children’s horror stories. The alliteration here heightens that effect, almost as if count Dracula is about to appear in the poem. Of course, this sets up the reader for a shock in stanza 2, in which the speaker lists threats that are far more terrifying and real.
The second stanza, then, uses alliteration in all the phrases from line 5:
[...] tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
While the alliteration in the first stanza was cutesy and fun, here it’s much more sinister. It has a suffocating, violent effect, evoking the fears listed in the stanza. “Tall walls wall me” feels like a kind of imprisonment, while “strong drugs dope me” suggests the strength of these narcotics. Packing so many sounds in such a small space allows the reader no moment’s rest, giving the poem a deep sense of unease and tension (which, of course, is exactly what the speaker feels).
In stanza 3, the poem reaches its most hopeful point. Here, the speaker asks to be granted a close relationship with the natural world. The alliteration in “With water,” “grass to grow,” “trees to talk,” and “sky to sing,” sounds happy and carefree, also suggesting a kind of natural abundance—as though the sounds are growing freely on the poem’s lines.
This optimism is short-lived, however. “[T]reason” and “traitors” in line 15 re-establish the poem’s sinister atmosphere, before lines 19 to 23 deploy alliteration similarly to the second stanza—as a kind of sonic weapon. The onslaught of sound is bolstered by strong assonance in this stanza as well:
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
Here, the speaker worries that life will be one long, exhausting performance—a performance that will never really make sense. Alliteration combines with assonance and consonance that once again prevents the poem from having any breathing space, as though life is full of panic (even the laughing lovers seem sinister).