sound in poetryIntroduction

Sound-patterning is a feature of the great majority of poems, and only in the last few centuries have readers become accustomed to silently reading a printed text. Poems were previously written for performance, and only committed to print subsequently, if at all. Poetry also derived from oral traditions, most spectacularly in the case of Homer, but continuing today in many less literate societies.

We know, to begin with, that the brain is a complicated instrument which digests and acts on information by a variety of complex and inter-linked processes. At its simplest, the left hemisphere (in right-handed people) attends to the literal sense, while the right is more intuitive. Logic is a therefore left-brain activity, and music a right-brained activity. The distinction should not be overdone: no human activity is limited to one hemisphere, and even the most elementary operations involve levels deeper than the cerebellum. But the common view that poetry is as more concerned with how than with what is said, does contain an element of truth. In ordinary listening we respond to the speaker's intention without attending overmuch to their shape and presentation. In poetry, however, with its double code, both sound and sense are important, and the two are processed on different and not necessarily parallel tracks. Psychoacoustics distinguishes a speech from a non-speech mode, and finds that not only is coding very complex in both modes but signals in one mode can cue the other.

And perhaps that explains differences between the music of instruments and of poetry. They are not the same. The poverty of language often obliges us to call a voice soft or harsh, and no doubt we fancy that the vowels produced deep in the back of the mouth correspond to the larger woodwind instruments, etc. But such knowledge as we possess on these matters, which is still very sketchy, does not support these analogies. Nor have all poets been good musicians, or good musicians been poetry readers with a keen ear.

Do sounds possess intrinsic meanings? The Symbolists fondly imagined so, and the attachment of words to their signified can be reinforced or reawakened by onomatopoeia and kinaesthesia.  But what attachments do individual words posses? Deconstructionists view language as a self-referencing code, in which words have no final attachments to the world outside. However overstated, the theory stresses an obvious point: words gain meanings by context. If sounds are to have inherent meanings, therefore, they will achieve those in the context of other sounds. Given that poems are not freestanding creations but express cultural and literary understandings, any intrinsic meanings of sound will also involve a larger matrix, from which they are not easily extracted.

Nonetheless, some research has been possible. Just as different languages use common features to carve up the world in generally similar ways (even though the languages are physically and historically isolated), so there appear certain parallels in the ways sound is employed in the very different literatures of the world. Even beyond poetry, sound evokes similar associations in widely different cultures, and to some extent necessarily, since human beings have common behaviours and vocal equipment.

Again, there are dangers of oversimplifying matters. Oriental languages are often tonal, and this makes for difficulties in translation, since oriental poetry extensively exploits a feature missing from English. Even within the European languages there are differences in the ways certain sounds will register. The Romance languages are generally fluid and employ open vowels, whereas the Germanic languages are markedly stressed, and make more use of consonant clusters. When, for example, Valéry writes L'insecte net gratte la sécheresse (line 68 of Le Cimitière), the dentals and sibilants used to convey the parched landscapes of the Mediterranean summer are much more evident to a French ear than they are to ours.

And that brings us to an essential point. It is not sound in any general sense which is important, but how sound is used in a particular poem. Contemporary poets generally shun any music of verse, even if that means producing work not markedly different from everyday speech. That is their prerogative, and the matter is not to be settled on abstract bases, but to what uses sound can be put, on the gains and the losses, which can be very varied.


Sound underlies those terms which schoolchildren were once tortured with — alliteration, assonance, euphony, rhyme, pararhyme, onomatopoeia, repetition and tone colour. Moreover, in England at least, sound makes oblique reference to class attitudes and aspects.  The greatest poets — Homer, Virgil, Du Fu, Rumi, Shakespeare, Racine, etc., who are supreme by virtue of their humanity — were also masters of the intricate deployment of sound, and had to be: sound is part and parcel of a poem's content.

Arguments arise over three aspects. First we have to note that writers (and indeed readers) vary very considerably as to whether they predominantly verbalize or visualize. The two faculties are not entirely separate, but where Byron tends towards graphic images, Keats gains his effects by incantatory sound. Second is the question of how consciously or deliberately poets create their sound effects. Valéry could spend days seeking a word with the required vowels, consonants and number of syllables, but Shakespeare wrote much too rapidly for that valetudinarian care. Both are great writers, however, so that there is nothing gained by making rules from personal preferences. Third is the effect on the reader. Overuse of certain devices will create artificial work: alliteration in Lilly, Poe, and Swinburne. Nonetheless, it is not the device as such, but its use in too strident a way, or its use to the exclusion of other devices, which causes the problem, which literary tact eventually corrects.

We have also to acknowledge that sound is a pleasure, and something innate in human beings. We like to sing, and chants that approach song are moving and socially cohesive: the King James' Version and street demonstrations. Poetry is more readily put to music than prose, and even pop music employs poetic devices. Poetry may indeed slide into music, though the first makes more use of articulation and phonetic timbre and the second of pitch and duration. Repetition is instinctive, moreover: dada and mama gurgles the baby. Mnemonic devices are most effective when sound reinforces the sense. The texture of poetry may reflect the physical characteristics of their author's voice. And so on.

Sound is used for various ends in poetry, and these are often grouped under structure and texture. To the first belong rhyme, metre, arrangement of internal pauses, all of which come in a multitude of patterns dictated by literary tradition and properties of the language itself. The texture of sound is subtler and more important, at least to modern ears. It goes well beyond any simple characterization by recurring consonants or vowels, or predominantly as liquid or harsh, bright or sombre. In fact, both structure and texture can be classified further under headings of formal structure, sense, scene, feelings and aesthetics. 

Contemporary Use

Deliberate use of sound is far from dead, even among poets who dislike academia and the tightly constructed poetry it advocates. Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creely and Charles Wright {1}, to mention but three, aim at fluid, open forms that reflect the contemporary American scene. Yet if we look at their poetry, we find their most celebrated lines are successful to the extent they deploy the devices we have touched on.

Passages: Oct 1 by Robert Duncan

The bird's leap upward to flight towards the heart

(Punctuation by repeated d, t and p sound; expressive mime of repeated to.)

Wings Lifted over the Black Pit by Allen Ginsberg

Smoke & Steam, broken glass & beer cans,
Auto exhaust.

(Repeated s and t sounds used in an abstract pattern to symbolize the sense.)

Southern Cross by Charles Wright

Nightwind by now in the olive trees
No sound but the wind from anything.

(Not only tone painting with nasal n and v, but the involved interconnections in the repeated in, nd, ee sounds, superb in the second line.)

Detailed Examples

Emphasis: words or images

For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy — cloth
(2. W.B. Yeats. Byzantium.)

Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
Inimitable contriver,
(2. John Berryman. Eleven Addresses to the Lord.)

And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
(2. Dylan Thomas
. Poem in October.)

Indirect support of argument by related echoes

Is it a trick or a trysting place,
Is it a mirage or miracle,
(2. Philip Larkin. XXVII)

Comes home dull with coal dust to deliberately
Grime the sink…
(3. Ted Hughes. Her Husband.)

It was a flowering and a laying waste
— Man's skills found shining at the heart of woman,
His vengeance too, expediently unlaced.
(3. Carol Rumens. The Freedom Won by War for Women.)

Counterpoising: opposes or distracts from verse structure

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk top
(3. Richard Wilber. The Writer.)

The woman in the block of ivory soap
Has massive thighs that neigh,
Great breasts that blare and strong arms that trumpet.
(2. Marge Piercy. The Woman in the Ordinary.)

He took no suck when shook buds sing together
But he is come in cold as workhouse weather
(2. John Short. Carol.)

Interconnection: sound, meaning and feeling.

The way the shy stars go stuttering on…
Slurs its soft wax, flatters.
(4. Carol Ann Duffy. The Grammar of Light.)

Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market
(2. Elma Mitchell. Thoughts after Ruskin.)

And dearer, water, than ever your voice, as if
Glad — though goodness knows why — to run with the human race,
(2. W.H. Auden. Streams.)

Abstract patterning: emphasizing content

Knowing not how shrewdly the rod
Would bite the back in the kingdom of the dead God.
(3. Howard Nemerov. The Death of God.)

Help us out in Vietnam
Help us drop that BatNapalm
(2. Adrian Henri. BatPoem.)

I am a young executive No cuffs than mine are cleaner.
(2. John Betjeman. The Executive.)

Onomatopoeia: representation by sound.

I lay in an agony of imagination as the wind…
Snuffled through floorboards from the foundations.
(2. Peter Redgrove. Old House)

Grumbling on the stairs
Over an old grammar…
The somnambulist brook.
(3. Elizabeth Bishop. A Summer's Dream.)

I hear among the furze the murmur
Of innumerable wasps.
(3. Robert Conquest. To be a Pilgrim.)

Illustrative Mime: mouth movements evoke motion or shape

The towelled head next, the huge bactrachian mouth:
(2. Charles Tomlinson. Charlotte Corday.)

I am Raftery, hesitant and confused among
(2. Derek Mahon. I am Raftery.)

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth — corrupted lungs.
(2. Wilfred Own. Dulce et Decorum Est.)

Illustrative Painting: patterns correspond to non — acoustic elements.

Whatever went wrong, that week, was more than weather:
(2. Amy Clampit. A Hairline Fracture.)

I was born in Bristol, and it is possible
To live harshly in that city.
(3. C.H. Sisons. Family Fortunes.)

How loud and above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosanna,
(2.  Ted Hughes. Thrushes.)

Passionate Emphasis

Forever aslant in their moment and the mind's eye.
(3. Anthony Hecht. The Cost.)

Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie.
(3. Robert Lowell. The Holy Innocents.)

Cousin, it's of you I always dream
As I walk these dislocated lawns
(2. Jane Cooper. C. in a mental hospital.)

Mood  Evocation

ated upon the stillness of the bride.
(3.  Geoffrey Hill. A Short History of British India.)

Again deceived, I found
Peace in the ceremonial love of wealth,
(5. Wesley Trimpi. Oedipus to the Oracle.)

The gaiety of three winds is a game of green
Shining, of gray-and-gold play in the holly-bush
(5. W.S. Merwin. White Goat, White Ram.)

Expressive Mine:
mouth movements evoke the emotion

Lark drives invisible pitons in the air
And hauls itself up the face of space.
(3.  Norman MacCaig. Movements.)

Some must employ the scythe
Upon the grasses
(5.  Philip Larkin. The Dedicated.)

Oh leave his body broken on the rocks
(5. William Bell. On a Dying Boy.)

Expressive Painting

All year the flax-damn festered in the heart
Of the townland;
(3.  Seamus Heaney. Death of a Naturalist.)

Now winter downs the dying of the year
And night is all a settlement of snow
(5. Richard Wilber. Years-End.)

And caught in the snare of the bleeding air
The butcher bird sings, sings, sings.
(5. Charles Causley. Recruiting Drive.)


But she, exiled, expelled, ex-queen,
Swishes among the men of science.
(6. Fleur Adcock. The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers.)

It may be at midday, limousines in cities, the groaning
Derrick and hissing hawser alive at dockyards,
Liners crawling with heat-baked decks, their élite
(6. Edwin Morgan. Stanzas of the Jeopardy.)

Shipwrecked, the sun sinks down harbours
Of a sky, unloads its liquid cargoes
Of marigolds,
(6. Dannie Abse. Epithalamion.)

The heat-haze dances meadowsweet and may,
Whole cliffs collapse,
(6. Andrew Motion. The Lines.)


Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of stars.
(6. Sylvia Plath. The Moon and the Yew Tree.)

and a winter when every stick of timber —
the yard's sodden, inedible driftwood, the fence-posts
(6. Duncan Bush. Pig Farmer.)

Fish gnaw the Flushing capons, hauled from fleeced
Lutheran Holland, for tomorrow's feast.
(6. Tony Harrison. The Nuptial Torches.)

Bitten and burned into mirrors of thin gold,
The weathercocks, blind from the weather,
(6. Charles Tomlinson. The Weathercocks.)


Time passing, and the memories of love
Coming back to me carissima, no more mockingly
Than ever before; time passing, unslackening
(6. Donald Davie. Time Passing, Beloved.)

The late, retarding and unsettled season
Works in the air with a distracting aim,
(6. Charles Gullens. Autumn. An Ode.)

Against the flare and descant of the gas
I heard an old woman in a shop maintain
(5. John Holloway. Warning to a Ghost.)

Mother, I went to China this morning.
The trees were pagodas, the puddles were seas.
Dragons were hiding behind the begonias.
(5. Alastair Reed. Who can Say.)

Some Suggestions

The list has been a long one, but is doubtless incomplete and somewhat arbitrary. What can we conclude? Perhaps the following:

1. Effects may not be consciously sought by the poet, or not initially, but they do help to explain the unexpected pleasure of the lines.

2. Once recognized, the effects can be developed, just as a composer develops a musical phrase by the laws of harmony.

3. Far more telling is their effect on the poem as a whole, the effect they create or fail to create.


Acknowledgement is made to these sources:

1. David Perkin's A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Belknap Press. (1987).
2. Lesley Jeffrey's The Language of Twentieth Century Poetry (1993).
3. D.J. Enright (Ed.) The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse. (1980)
4. Carol Ann Duffy. Selected Poems. (1994)
5. Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson (Eds.) New Poets of England and America (1974).
6. Sean O'Brian (Ed.) The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (1998).

Internet Resources

1. Excess of Patterning. Barbara F. McManus. Jul. 2003. Notes on diction and syntax in poetry.
2. Sound Symbolism. Daniel W. Kim. Apr. 1998. Short section in paper on literary computing and reception: includes two references.
3. Analyzing Sound Patterns. Time Love. Dec 2003. Excellent article, with bibliography and links.
4. Sound Poetry - A Survey. Steve McCaffery. Aug. 1978. Good review of aims and achievements of sound poets.
5. Close Listening and the Performed Word, edited by Charles Bernstein. 1998. Review by Dubravka Djuric on an interesting collection of essays, contributors mostly poets.
6. The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry. Albert Gelpi. 1990. Games Postmodernism plays with reference, sometimes through phonetic elements.
7. Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes. Tina Blue.
. Straightforward.
8. Barbed Wire Entanglements: The New American Poetry 1930-32. Marjorie Perloff. Oct. 2000. One of many essays of interest on this site.
9. Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism. Gerald Janecek. Excerpt demonstrating the patterning in Kruchonykh's 1917-21 work.
10. Symbolic Linguistics Cultural Transmission and the Linguistic Construction of Reality. Hugh M. Lewis. Feb. 2004. NaturalSystems/NSchapter15.htm. Chapter XV in online (free) book: considers the role of sound patterning.
11. Alliteration. Section in excellent prosody resource.
12. Forgotten Ground Regained. Dec 2003. Alliterative poetry, traditional and modern.
13. Form and Technique in Poetry. bookreview/poetry.cfm. Glossary, including euphony.
14. Onomatopoeia.
. Definition and example.
15. Onomatopoeic Nature of Language. Section in Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate on-line prosody resource.
16. All Words. Online dictionary, including rhyming and slang, with Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish translations.
17. Write Express. Allows search by type of rhyme.
18. Poetry I. General Introduction. Carleton Noyes. 1914. Now rather dated entry but mentions tone colour.
19. What Poet is Most Akin to Chopin? Fanny Morris Smith. 2002. 5.2.02/smithchopin.html. An interesting comparison of Chopin with Tennyson.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.