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Poetic Imagery—The Sound of Words​

Osprey drying its wings

Poetic imagery is the vivid use of figurative or descriptive language, and it enriches and enlivens all forms of writing. Words, by their very nature, convey meaning. But the sounds of some words can reinforce that meaning. That is, the word sounds like the very thing it conveys. These words are called onomatopoeias. The use of onomatopoeias greatly improves writing quality, and is an important consideration for word selection when writing poetry. But developing facility with onomatopoeias requires practice both hearing language and hearing the world around us.

Using Language to Describe Sound

Write one or two sentences describing one of the following sounds:

As you consider what each sound sounds like, and how you might verbally express it, are there any words you might use that sound like the thing you’re trying to describe?

Listen to this video with your eyes closed and focus on the sounds of a rainstorm. As you listen, consider how you might describe the various sounds. Now watch the video as you listen again. (It’s in Italian, but listen anyway!)

This can be recreated in the classroom. Have students sit in a circle and designate one as the leader. The leader should start rubbing his or her hands together, slowly and lightly at first, but gradually rubbing more quickly and pressing harder. The student to the right of the leader should imitate the leader after a delay of a second or two. The next person to the right should do the same after another second, etc, until everyone is doing it. The leader should then switch to snapping fingers, again starting lightly and more slowly, but gradually picking up the tempo. Students shouldn’t imitate the leader, but rather the person to their left after a slight delay. Slapping palms on thighs comes next. Feel free to recreate the thunder, but don’t be surprised if the class on the floor below yours complains!

Now, if you were to describe the sounds of a rainstorm, what words might you use? Look at the sentences you wrote describing the sound you chose. Can you select words that better convey that sound?

A Partial List of Onomatopoeias

When I consider using onomatopoeias in my writing, I find it very helpful to look at a list of words. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I don’t use it to be lazy, but rather as a springboard for ideas:

achoo, ahem, baa, bah, bam, bang, bark, bash, bawl, beep, belch, blare, blurt, boing, boink, bong, bonk, boo, boom, bubble, bump, buzz, chatter, cheep, chime, chirp, clack, clang, clap, clatter, click, clink, cluck, crackle, croon, crunch, cuckoo, ding, drip, drowsy, eek, eep, fizz, flick, flutter, giggle, growl, gulp, gurgle, hack, hiccup, hiss, honk, huh, hum, itch, jangle, jingle, knock, lazy, meow, moan, moo, mumble, murmur, neigh, oink, ouch, ow, patter, phew, ping, pitter, plink, plop, plunk, poof, pop, purr, quack, rattle, rickety, roar, rumble, rush, rustle, scream, screech, shuffle, shush, shriek, sizzle, slap, slash, sloppy, slurp, smack, snap, sniff, snip, snore, snort, splash, stomp, squelch, squish, sway, swipe, swish, swoop, swoosh, syncopated, thud, thump, tick, tinkle, tock, tsk, twang, tweet, ugh, vroom, weep, whack, wham, whip, whisper, whizz, whoop, whoosh, woof, yikes, zap, zing, zip, zoom

Onomatopoeias In Poetry

The effectiveness of writing rich with onomatopoeias isn’t lost on young children. That’s why so many nursery rhymes are so memorable (ie, “Hickory Dickory Dock,” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep”). Not surprisingly, the words we use to describe animal calls are highly onomatopoetic. Former Children’s Poet Laureate Jack Prelutsky has great fun with animal sounds in his poem “I Know All the Sounds that the Animals Make” from his book, Something Big Has Been Here. And even the title of Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo is unforgettable. You can just hear those cows typing away!

There are many classic examples of onomatopoeias in poetry for middle grade and high school students, as well. In “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, the poem bursts with effective onomatopoeias that deepen its meaning. Can you identify them all? Similarly, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells” is likewise full of onomatopoetic depth. Note how the sounds of the bells shift and darken as the poem progresses. Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” captures the sultry pace of a Harlem night in 1923. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll is the ultimate challenge in onomatopoetic poetry, since the words are made up and meaning is inferred by their sound.

Writing with Onomatopoeias

It’s good to be able to identify onomatopoeias, but if they’re to become part of a more expressive writing style, then students need to practice with them. Choose an object that makes a distinctive sound. How would you describe that sound in any words? (Don’t worry about onomatopoeias yet.) Does the sound ever vary, and if so how? What other sounds are similar, and how might you describe them? Can the description of one be used by the other? Now try and identify words that sound like your sound, that you can use in your writing.

Don’t worry about writing a poem, yet. Just work on onomotopoetic description. Get in the habit of using onomatopoeias in writing before you tackle a poem.

Using this process, here’s a poem I wrote about a table saw:

The Table Saw
By Julie Hahnke
Buzz, hum, buzz,
I dream of my next meal.
Hum, umm, umm,
Patience pulsing a low beat.
Buzz, uzz, uzz,
The rhythm of my wait.
My flying teeth rip, shred.
They tear with spinning zeal.
Then suddenly it ends.
Buzz, hum, buzz,
My sleepy snore resumes.

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