Poets are charged with creating works that are highly evocative. They use images that demonstrate emotions and ideas, either literally or metaphorically. Creative language is one of the tools that the best poets employ to get a point across. Consonance, alliteration and rhyme are often discussed, but among the most evocative choices in poetry is the use of onomatopoeia.
Word That Mimic
Onomatopoeia is a fancy term for a word that mimics a sound. For example:
Onomatopoeia is often used by poets because it allows the reader to visualize the scene that they are setting up by creating a multi-sensory experience, all in words.
Memorable Onomatopoeia Poems
Alfred Lord Tennyson was one of the most famous poets of the Victorian Era, succeeding the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth as England’s poet laureate. Lord Tennyson was widely known for his particularly effective use of language, which conjured up whimsy, mystery, and even sadness.
His medievalist poem, Morte D’Arthur, chronicles the death of the legendary King Arthur. The work is full of onomatopoeia.
- “I heard the ripple washing in the reeds / And the wild water lapping on the crag” provides a rather stark visual of the rocky shores of Great Britain, the “ripple” washing and “lapping” carries much more vivid detail than simply saying “the waves rolled.”
- The phrase “the cock crew loud” uses an antiquated past-tense of the word “crow,” which sounds like the noise a rooster makes.
The Bells and The Raven
Around the same time Tennyson wrote poetry in England, Edgar Allan Poe was doing the same in America. Poe’s poetry is always filled with sensory detail, quite often unsettling and frightening.
For example, in The Raven:
- The onomatopoetic “rapping” repeated so often in the poem “The Raven” is remembered by schoolchildren and adults alike for seemingly leading to an inexorable conclusion.
Poe’s poem The Bells is one of his most onomatopoetic. For example, in The Bells:
- Many different words are used throughout the poem that are meant to be imitative of bell sounds and evocative of the emotions created by these bells.
- The bell sounds are expressed throughout the poem as a “tinkle tinkle,” a “tintinnabulation,” a “jingling,” and finally a “moaning and groaning,” suggesting bells of various sizes and melodic properties.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
A popular fairy tale widely believed to be true is the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who supposedly led children away from their families in Germany during the Middle Ages.
Robert Browning, a poet who popularized the dramatic monologue, wrote an onomatopoetic poem about the pied piper. This poem depicts:
- The “shrill” noise of his pipe as being enchanting to the rats of different sizes (both “plodders” and “friskers,” onomatopoetic terms) that the piper led out of the town.
- Other onomatopoetic words that appear in the poem include “scrape,” “munch,” and “crunch,” each enhancing the images of his poem with audible sounds.
Cynthia in the Snow
Gwendolyn Brooks was an American author who wrote prominently during the years of the civil rights movement. An African-American, Brooks experienced many of the trials and tribulations associated with being black during a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.
She often poured these experiences into her poetry, which used particularly sensory language to depict a variety of different ideas, scenarios, and stories. She later became a Poet Laureate Consultant for her works.
Brooks’ poem Cynthia in the Snow uses onomatopoeia to depict a girl’s thoughts about the snow:
- The snow softly falling as it “hushes” and “shushes” the cars that drive in the street.
- The snow “flitter-twitters” around in the girl’s mind, before it “whitely whirs away.”
- She even personifies the snow, describing it as it “laughs.”
These onomatopoetic words also contain hints of alliteration, words that begin with the same sound.