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What Is Sound Poetry?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sound poetry is a form of poetry that emphasizes the sounds that make up words rather than the actual words themselves. A sound poem uses an arrangement of phonetic sounds to create a musical tone and rhythm. Although its text can be written, sound poems are meant to be “performed,” spoken publicly by the poet. Some of the poetry is available in recorded rather than written form. As an art form, it is related to visual poetry.

Probably all poetry can be considered to have its roots in an oral tradition, as all poems were spoken in pre-literate cultures. Some of the great epic poems from around the world are written copies of oral narratives. What distinguishes sound poetry from oral poetry in a fundamental way is that its sounds have no meaning in any traditional sense. The sounds are not “words” but only sounds arranged in a pattern.

In written form, sound poetry contains letters and sounds that seem like words but are not. German author and poet Hugo Ball performed what may have been the first public sound poem in 1915. Untitled, it contains the lines “gadgi beri bimba/glandiri lauli lonni cadori.” Like words, the sounds have consonants and vowels. The arrangement also uses poetic devices like alliteration, slant rhyme and repetition.

Similar to music, sound poetry’s meaning is conveyed in the images the sounds create in the listener’s mind. The sound arrangements of the poems are structured like traditional poetry, with lines, verses and stanzas. German sound poet Kurt Schwitters described his poem “Ursonate” in musical terms. He refers to its four movements, the overture, and the finale. He compared the written poem to a musical score, which can be given various interpretations and was better when performed and listened to rather than read.

Related in some respects to sound poetry is visual poetry. As does poetry relying on sound, visual poetry uses the arrangement of the text to give effect to the meaning of the poem. The lines of the poem are arranged on the page to form symbols, patterns, or pictures.

An often cited example of visual poetry is Welsh born English poet George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” The poem’s theme is the admission of sin and a Christian’s prayer for redemption. The text is composed so that when held sideways it displays the image of a bird flying upward. Held upright, the words suggest an hourglass, symbolic of time. In Christianity, Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ from the dead, is traditionally a time of repentance.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On May 01, 2012

@umbra21 - I think there is something to sound poetry. If it is read aloud in the right way, it can certainly tell a story, as we get so much from voice cadence and gesture and things like that.

But even without a story, I still find it has value. It's just a burble of sound, the same way that music is a burble of sound, and if it's done well, it can be soothing or rousing or whatever.

I like it more than visual poetry, to be honest, because I think most visual poems are fairly obvious and badly done, just an ordinary poem arranged into lines so that it looks like a relevant object.

Both are arts that can be done well or done badly, but I think that visual poetry is done badly more often just because it's much more popular and obvious as a technique.

By umbra21 — On Apr 30, 2012

I don't really like pure sound poetry all that much. Meaning in poems is very important to me.

I can see sound devices used in poetry to great effect and I've read many poems where nonsense words are used and the meaning of the poem remains intact, or is even enhanced.

But if it is pure gibberish, while I can appreciate the abstract nature of it, it doesn't really appeal to me.

I suppose it's the same as people who don't like very abstract modern art. I'm sure there is a lot of skill involved, but it looks like a child's efforts to me, or worse, a chimp's efforts.

On the other hand it must appeal to someone, so I guess it will continue and more power to those poets.

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