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Now I Will Do Nothing but Listen
writing about noises
One of the easiest entrances into happy writing is to write about noises. At the same time, becoming attuned to sounds in writing opens into some of the most nerdy and wonderful aspects of language as well as some truly powerful writing.
I like to start writing about noises and thinking about the sound of words right away. Often this is the second or third prompt I try writing with children. Sometimes we just write poems about noisy things. Halloween, storms, cities. There’s a wonderful sense of motion and action in these poems, such as this one, written as a group, with each kid writing a line or two on slips of paper, and me putting them in a pleasing order:
The Busy City
I can hear the peaceful sound of the city. Honk! Honk! Honk! Honk!
I hear a sound that sounds like somebody going flop. No, a car.
Up the escalator, down the very tall stairs. Honk goes the cars. Well goes the man, why’d you hit my bumper.
Basher — THWACK! Crack! Gun — RAT-A tat tat. Plink, Jink, SLAKT! Freedom! Boom!
Honk, crash, boom, eeeoooeeeooo.
The town was noisy. Boom, crash, splat. Everything was noisy. Creak, bang. Too loud, too loud. The town is too loud.
Hewwwph…. The wind of the storm. Honk, honk, whew. A traffic jam. Stop the! — bang, bang. The guns in a riot. Croak, criou, criou. Insects in the night. Hewwph. Honk, whew, bang, croak, criou. The city.
There were rock bands playing and pots slamming together. Tornado!
Creak, squeak, creak, squeak, wipers sweep the splashy glass the splishy fishy puddle washing wheels crossing hills heading home through the rain beat streets.
The moths are buzzing with their golden wings under the light of the moon.
Boom crack. Sound. My heart beat goes on and on. On.
This is very fun for young children, or really for anyone who likes to feel the power of being very loud. Noise poems get playful and kinesthetic – a great entrance into poetry for the wiggly crowd. It works well as a prompt for kids to write individual poems too. As always, I tell them it doesn’t need to rhyme.
Another entrance into writing about noises is listening. This prompt could be done outside in a park , a busy cityscape, while waiting somewhere boring, or from the imagination. Simply write down a big list of everything you hear. Be detailed. Use the most specific words you can. Do you hear a robin or a sparrow? An ambulance or a fire truck? You can describe the sounds if you like. Imagine everything you hear becomes part of something, maybe even yourself. Your poem (or list, but let’s call it a poem!) includes it all. If you want to bring in some Venerable American Poetry, Walt Whitman does this in Song of Myself (section 26 excerpted here):
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks
cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave'e'yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color'd lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play'd at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)
I hear the violoncello, ('tis the young man's heart's complaint,)
I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.
When I share Whitman with kids, I point out how long his lines are, as if he could squeeze everything in. I gesture with my arms a lot, like I’m hugging the whole world. I point out the precision of detail and the over-spilling enthusiasm for life. You can do any of that, or point out what strikes you. You can ask open questions. Or you can skip the Whitman altogether and just listen to the world around you and inside you and try to put it in all its cacophony into your poem.
I’d love to know how it goes if you try these prompts. Leave a comment!