Sound in Poems

by sheilamarie

The sound in a poem is what delights us. Meaning resonates through how words and lines sound, creating beauty and sometimes even shaking us up!

Poets use the sound of words while writing their poems. Although meaning may be central, the way a poem sounds brings an extra layer of meaning to the poem which it would not otherwise have.

Sound in a poem is one of the main elements a poet considers while constructing a work of art out of the mundane words we use in our everyday life.

Hear the Sound a Poem Makes

Sound in Poem Makes the Poem

When you listen to a poem, what is it that touches you? Sound in a poem can be as important as the meaning of the words. A poet uses words the way a painter uses paint or a sculptor uses clay.

The main difference, however, is that the same words in the same language in which the poet writes are used by bankers and salespeople and sports broadcasters. Words make up our grocery lists and are used on billboards and cereal boxes. One of the challenges a poet faces is how to express the bubbling up of the artistic impulse with the words that are used in the mundane workings of our everyday lives. These are the words that belong to everybody and to nobody in particular.

Words are the tools the poet uses to reach beneath the surface of our everyday experiences to express the eternal moments that tie us all together.

The Spoken Word: Listen to Poets Reading Their Work

The Sound of Poems

How Do Poets Use Sound in a Poem?

Here's a List of Poetic Devices
  • Alliteration: Same beginning consonant sounds in words; speeds up the movement of the poem. ("Round the rampant rugged rocks" -- W.H. Auden.)
  • Consonance: Using the same consonants anywhere in the word ("unless a lonely owl").
  • Assonance: Vowel sounds reflect each other ("each needed word repeats").
  • Rhyme: The word has the same vowel and consonant sounds at the end, but different beginning sound (bake/make). Rhyme can also be used in a little different way for a less emphatic effect in what's referred to as a half rhyme or a slant rhyme -- lake/look or again/gone.
  • Onomatopeia: words that imitate the sound of what they mean, as for instance, animal sounds or sounds of objects -- the twang of a guitar, the tinkling of a bell, the sploosh of a boot in the mud.

If you write poems, what sound devices do you use most often in your writing?

If you don't write poems yourself, to what sound do you most respond in others' poems?

Sound Poem and Sound Poets

Focusing on Sound in Poetry

Some poets have used sound exclusively, disregarding or minimizing the actual meaning of the words. The phonetic quality of the words themselves becomes the focus.

In the early twentieth century, Futurists and Dadaists were notable for disregarding the meaning of words and focusing on the sounds the words make. Some of the beat poets of the 50's continued this focus on sound.

Some of the poets who come to mind as sound poets are, among others, bp Nichol, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Live performance was one of the essential elements sound poets insisted on.

Although some of these poets called the work they produced "sound poems," the poets in these traditions do not have a monopoly on sound. Indeed sound is an essential element of all poetry of any time and in any language.


Favorite Poets

At Least for Today

People who read poetry can't help but respond more deeply to some than to others. For me, I have favorites depending upon whom I am reading and on what I am focusing at any given time. My favorite poets change from week to week or year to year as conditions in my life change and as work I am exposed to expands.

Living poets I have had as favorites are Mary Oliver, Scott Cairns, B.H. Fairchild, and many others. I tend to like them because of their subject matter, but also for the way they use sound in composing their poems.

My discovery of poets of the past is very important to me and is a continuous road of exploration and delight. 

The references to some of these poets below are for your reflection. They use language careful of the sounds they produce, though they don't rely heavily on rhyme, per se. There is a richness to language when it is used well. 

Poetry Books I've Enjoyed

Why I Wake Early: New Poems
Beacon Press
$15.00  $4.11
Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$19.00  $8.18

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Updated: 12/19/2016, sheilamarie
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Thanks for Reading About Sound in Poetry. Please Say Hello!

sheilamarie on 08/07/2011

Thanks tssfacts and happynutritionist for your comments. Wouldn't it be great if we could sing together online? I love to sing, too. Maybe that is why I enjoy poetry so much.

happynutritionist on 08/04/2011

I agree with tss below, a poem flows like a song. Maybe I think that way from singing so many hymns over the years, there is poetry in the way they are written...because of the nature of poetry it is a natural to want to put them to music.

Guest on 07/10/2011

At times poems sound like songs to me. The sound of the poem is just as important as the words of the poem.

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