(Almost) Everything is an Onomatopoeia

How to get poems to sound like what they're talking about, and other fun ways to play with sound

Onomatopoeia: that really big and over-voweled word for words that belong splashed across a superhero comic. Bang! Crash! Thwack! Right? Well, I have a secret theory that many, many words echo the essence of their meaning in their sounds. Think about it: The peckiness of chicken. The openness of light. The ah relief in water. The revving energy in revolution. The sneer your face makes when you pronounce despicable.

So maybe I’m getting nerdy here. But thinking about the sound of words is an endless delight to me, and kids get into it too. While plain old noise poems are fun, I also like to think about how to get the sounds of things into poems besides just saying boom, bang etc. For instance, say you wanted to write about a lazy summer day in a garden buzzing with bees. You could write buzz, buzz, buzz, but that gets old fast. Or you could think of all the other words that sound like buzzing: bees, biz, fuzz, fizz, cousin, husband, hazy, was, because, muzzle, puzzle, lazy, drizzle, paws, jazz…. Suddenly your poem has more options. Now you’re in the hazy lazy daisies while your cousin’s showbiz husband puzzles jazz and the dizzy bees buzz along their mazy ways. This is overkill, but what about these lines from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

Can you hear the onomatopoeia of shake echo again in mistake? These moments move subtly through so many poems. I usually encourage my kids to push this idea a little hard to play with it, and they write very fun things as a result:

The whoosh of the bush and gush. A creak of a weak beaked crow that chatters the batter bad gator. The wind I wish should wash my fears away but instead it makes me more afraid of every creak and ooosh.

~ Theo

Sounding like animals:

Another fun way to play with this is to write in the voice of an animal, like Liana’s poem about a dog scolding pirates, which she’s peppered with words that sound like bark and ruff:

When a Dog has Tea with a Band of Pirates

You scruffy monsters! You shameful sharks!

Mind your manners you rough scoundrels!

Don't burp you rascals! Don't eat your raw meat with your fingers!

Hark! Don't snark. Do you think you're too tough to listen to me?

Tell me the truth, you're so uncouth and you've never thought,

have you? You've never thought of manners!

You're like manure.

And those who you grab you grab by the scruff of the neck.

Now enough! Go improve your manners. Don't bark at children.

Go learn what polite is, for the truth is you aren't, are you?

                   ~ Liana

More ways to play:

There are many, many more ways to play with sounds in poetry. I’d like to include a few more poems by children playing with sound in various ways. Try making the whole poem do what the thing you are describing does, the way Jillian’s cave echoes.

The Cave

Echo cho ho o

Drips ips from the stalactites, tites, ites

Wet rock, ock

Green moss grows, ows

On stalagmites, ites.

Shh sweet stream, ream.

Stay hidden, idden,

In my dreams,

Eams.

~Jillian

Try writing about the sounds of letters, giving an image or example for each, the way Cadence does.

The Writer’s Name

C Sounds like the ice cracking.

A Sounds like the autumn leaves falling.

D Sounds like the drum beat.

E Sounds like a dead end.

N Sounds like a nice cup of tea.

C Sounds like a snake slithering.

E Sounds like a silent llamaness.

~ Cadence

 Or just be playful with sound, like Maya. Maya’s poems are full of noisy actions. She also uses lots of alliteration, meaning she starts words with the same consonant: Whoosh the wind whips a whirling wily water. She uses assonance – repeating vowels sounds: onto the beach tossing the conks…. And of course she has some rhymes: Throw your snow…. Any one of these things could be its own challenge: try playing with assonance. Try playing with alliteration. But how fun to mix them all together, just doing what sounds good to your ear.

Roll Round Waves Roll

Roll round waves onto the beach tossing the conks and clams. Throw your snow foam onto the crystal clear glass and the sands of the underwater mountain. The sands rich with life. Sssst a purple rock crab scuttles across the sand. Floop a clumsy parrot falls from a tree. Splash a kingfisher spears an eel on the island rich with life.

~Maya

The Wind and the Water

Whoosh the wind whips a whirling wily water filled branch into the frothing sea boiling bubbling and booming with the thunder shattering the sky above into a million glass raindrops that fall unto the smooth stones that roll down the beach now.

~Maya