Sound Effects in Poetry

I realize this summer I have been posting poetry prompts without providing much guidance for those who feel they might need it in writing poetry. I’ve had lots of students say they can’t write poetry only to have them find, after a little instruction and a willingness to play with their words (that’s where the title for my writing prompt page came from), they can write poetry and that it can actually be fun.

I view poetry as concentrated writing. The writer communicates an idea, belief, memory, story, etc, using fewer words and less space than he or she might use when writing prose. And because of this compression of writing, just like fruit punch concentrate, the final product is quite potent.

Because of the concentrated nature of poetry, word choice matters even more here, perhaps, than in prose. And in poetry the sound effects of the words used contribute to the power and meaning of the writing.

So, here are some sound effects you can use in writing poetry. Once you use them consistently, they will come naturally to you. As you are learning them, however, I would advise not paying particular attention to these until you are revising the rough drafts of your poems.

1) Alliteration: (my favorite) Alliteration involves using consecutive words that start with the same letter. Allow me to use Mother Goose to illustrate: “Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John…” The first three words of this nursery rhyme use alliteration.

2) Assonance: Assonance involves using words in a line of verse that repeat a particular vowel sound. In “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…” the a sound is repeated in three of the four words. This line also illustrates another technique…

3) Consonance: Consonance involves repeating a consonant sound within a line of poetry. For example, “The little dog laughed to see such sport…” The “l” sounds bind together the first half of this line, while the alliteration of the “s” sound concludes it.

4) End Rhyme: End rhyme occurs when the ends of two lines of poetry rhyme with each other. “Hey diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle…” Diddle and fiddle are rhyming words and their appearance at the end of each line gives the rhyme a musical quality.

5) Internal Rhyme: This is rhyme that is used internally within a line of a poem. “Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater/Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.” This line uses internal rhyme in its first line and end rhyme for the first two lines, again providing a linking within and between the lines, and the rhythmic repetition of sound.

6) Meter: Meter provides the percussion section of the poem. Metered poetry has a specific, repeating rhythm that carries the reader through it’s lines. Consider the bouncing footsteps of this famous rhyme, “Jack and Jill went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water…” Meter can set the mood for a poem, create a predictable, unifying rhythm, and propel the reader through the poem.

7) Onomatopoeia: (Don’t you love the spelling of this word? Not!) Onomatopoeia are actual sound effect words–words that sound like the sound they’re describing. “POP! Goes the weasel” provides an example of onomatopoeia, as its first word is the word for the sound the weasel is making. “Crash,” “smash,” and “boom” are also examples of onomatopoeia.

8) Repetition: Repetition is exactly what it sounds like. “Little cat, little cat/where have you been?” Repetition is often used for emphasis and to support rhythm.

Sound effects can enhance meaning, underscore mood, create verisimilitude, or provide predictability or propulsion. But best of all, sound effects are fun. Play with your words. Play with your poetry. Take pleasure in the richness and flavor of language.

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