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Aluminium blues (self portrait), 1935, by Max Dupain, c/- State Library of NSW on Flickr

There’s so much to say about sound – it’s hard to know where to start and when to finish. From the 8th century BCE singers who were the pre-cursors of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, to today’s Slam Poetry and the exciting world of Hip Hop, poetry is all racket and clang down the years. 

Hi everyone, it’s Peter from Australia and I’m hosting the bar – and tonight we’re doing a sound check at Dverse. So sit back and enjoy three cool things – that you probably already know – and a fun exercise below. 

‘sound is the principal business of poetry’

Wallace Stevens  

Cool thing 1. Two hemispheres working together

MRI studies have shown that, unlike prose, poetry is processed by both hemispheres of the brain. Areas associated with meaning, memory, introspection and music appreciation all light up when people read poetry.

While there have been schools of poetry that dispense with sound (concrete poetry for example) generally, I believe it’s better when sense and sound are working together in a poem. 

Listen to Gerard Manley Hopkins from ‘as kingfishers catch fire’

            As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
            As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
            Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
            Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Pick any line in this sonnet and hear the sounds ringing.

            As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

Listen to the sound play – the ‘f’ sounds; the short and long ‘a’ sounds; the ‘dr’ repeating – the entire line is alive with sound. At the same time, Hopkins’ words describe a busy country scene of birds and insects. Sound and meaning work together to create a memorable vision.  

Cool thing 2. English is relatively impoverished for sound – so we improvise  

Here’s a fascinating (though incomplete) comparison of rhyme across languages. As you’ll see, some languages have few rhymes (Latin, Ancient Greek), and some like Spanish and Italian, Polish, Arabic, Vietnamese, have many.

Poetry in English has developed strategies to help words ring

  • onomatopoeia – where the word sounds like the thing it signifies – ‘pop’, ‘splash’ ‘ting’ 
  • alliteration (consonants repeating) & assonance (vowel sounds repeating);
  • rhyme – where sounds match; slant rhyme where sounds nearly match.
  • rhythm – where the regular beat of syllables creates a sound expectation in the reader
  • repetition – refrains, and even the repetition of words along a line. 

In traditional forms – sonnet, villanelle, pantoum and others – rhyme and rhythm are mandated – so if you like the form becomes a sound container for the poem’s ideas. 

I bet you a pint/schooner/tulip or snifter that your favourite verse has some kind of sound patterning going on. 

(If English is your second language, tell us in the comments section about rhymes and soundings in your first language) 

Many poets write in free verse. But that doesn’t mean forget about sound and rhythm; it’s even more important. Here’s African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks from 1963 with We real cool

            The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.
            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. We   
            Thin gin. We

            Jazz June. We   
            Die soon.

Listen to the sounds in this masterpiece. ‘We real cool. We/Left school…’ l’s repeating and long o’s. Each line is an enjambed ‘We’ and a double sound, keeping to the sparse vernacular of the pool players. If you follow the link you can hear the poet reading, how she lifts the ‘We…’ into a ‘Wh…’ like a whip. And when we get down to ‘Sing sin. We/ Thin gin.’ there’s four repetitions of the ‘in’ sound, leading to the grim final stanza. 

Here’s Australian poet Omar Sakr from 2017 – from his poem ‘The H word’

            My suburbs had hoods, baggy low-riders, we
            all did. Around our necks they hung

            loose in the heat, rode high in the rain. 

Wonderful vernacular phrasing and lot’s of ‘h’ sounds which continue through the rest of the poem.

Cool thing 3. Extreme sounding – Welsh poetry. 

“Imagine that the most popular show on your favourite radio station was a poetry competition, with local teams fighting to win a national trophy. Each poet is given a subject and a meter, then invited to leave for twenty minutes to compose his or her offering…This is a description of the most-listened-to show now on Radio Cymru, the BBC’s Welsh-language radio service.” from Extreme Welsh Meter by Gwyneth Lewis.

In English poetry we have around 15 common poetic forms (depending how you count them), in traditional Welsh poetry there are 24 poetic forms and four meters. 

Here’s Dylan Thomas with Poem in October  –

            It was my thirtieth year to heaven
            Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
            And the mussel pooled and the heron—
            Priested shore 

Listen to the ‘h’ sounds: heaven, hearing, harbour, heron; the long ‘e’s – ‘year’ ‘heaven’, ‘hearing’, ‘priested’ – it’s jam-packed, or what we in Australia call chock-a-block (or just chockas), with wonderful sound.

Thomas was Welsh, Hopkins spent time as a Jesuit novitiate in Wales – and many other poets have spent some time studying in Wales or were influenced by these traditions: WH Auden, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky and Australian poet Les Murray.

Here’s Australian poet Melinda Smithwith a poem also about ageing and time passing: 


            I was all angle once
            sharp and schist-like
            a spiked rock dragon-back
            arching into air
            too late you learn    the long
            wash of days    given grist enough
            finds your fissures
            chafes them    wide
            these days   knowing    I wade
            in a rising tide    of blonde    of bland
            when my time comes
            I will degrade    with particulate    grace
                       become    the merest    dimple
                                  in a    cheek    of beach
                                            smooth and    silted
                                                       with my own    crushed    dust

Marvellous stuff isn’t it?

Our exercise

OK soundsters – tonight’s just right to write a poem with a focus on sounds. 

  • Look at a poem in your draft pile that needs a sound lift or write something new
  • Either way, the important thing is listen for those sounds. Read your draft out loud, read it to your partner, the neighbour, your cat or dog, the bowl of petunias on your mantle – do the lines sing? 
  • If you like, record it and post it on your blog for us. This website might be helpful to those of you new to recording video and sound on your phone or computer. 
  • Remember, let your words ring. 
  • Link it up to our Mr. Linky.
  • Don’t forget to check the little box to accept use/privacy policy 
  • Visit other blogs, enjoy some amazing poets, and 
  • Have sonorous fun.

And since we didn’t get to talk about performance poetry this time round, here’s American poet Gil Scott Herron from 1971 with The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. 

STOP PRESS: There will be a live OpenLinkNight on Oct. 29 which will be co-hosted by Björn and Sanaa. Join us next week for a live and lively exchange of readings.