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Onomatopoeia -- What It Is and How to Use It
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Onomatopoeia is a fun figure of speech. Comic book artists and graphic novelists use it all the time. However, this figurative language is not relegated to comic strips alone. Onomatopoeia can, in fact, be used for narrative effect. Poets often use it in narrative poetry; any writer can use onomatopoeia to make her story more dynamic.
Funky Winkerbean did it. D.H. Lawrence wrote with it. Lichtenstein painted it. Even Robert Frost used it. So, what are you waiting for? Let's look at some onomatopoeia examples and learn how to enrich our writing with onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeia Lesson | What is Onomatopoeia?
What is Onomatopoeia?
The definition of onomatopoeia is the mimicking a sound with a word. This literary device is used to convey the sense of the word. For example, "Mother Goose" tells us the sounds animals make in the nursery rhyme "Animals:"
Bow-wow, says the dog,
Mew, mew says the cat,
Grunt, grunt, goes the hog,
And sqeak goes the rat.
Tu, whu, says the owl,
Quack, quack, says the duck,
And what the cuckcoo says you know.
"Bow-wow," "mew," "grunt," etc. are examples of onomatopoeia.
Making children's literature funny is only one use of onomatopoeia. Writers use onomatopoeia to create vivid images in their work by replicating the sounds associated with their topic.Words such as "mutter" and "grumble" are also examples of onomatopoeia, which poet Robert Browning uses in his poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin:"
And the ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
The muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to mighty rumbling;
The words "utter" and "rumble" are also examples of onomatopoeia.
Poems with Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is an example of how art imitates life. A poet uses onomatopoeia to create a sound within his poem, and therefore affect the power of the poem.
In his poem "Piano," D.H. Lawrence uses the word "boom" for the resounding sound of his mother's piano playing, a contrast to the delicate "tingling" of the strings inside the piano: "A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings..."
A sophisticated poet, Lawrence uses the contrast of "boom" with "tingle" and "tinkle" as an echo of the conflict of a man lamenting his lost childhood.
Robert Frost uses the literary device to build tension in "Out, Out-." He describes the sounds of the saw in his poem: buzz, rattle and snarl:
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it....And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled, As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
The harsh sounds of the words add menace to a tool that later kills a boy.
In "Bells," Edgar Allan Poe makes a study of onomatopoeia, examining many bell sounds such as "clamor," "clang" and "jangle."
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!...
Hear the loud alarum bells-
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
...How they clang, and clash, and roar!
He uses the different sounds to create different moods in the poem.
Types of Onomatopoeia
meow, hiss, growl
How to Use Onomatopoeia
Creating onomatopoeia poetry involves listening to the sound of the poem and evaluating how well it conveys the sound of the topic.
Certain topics lend themselves to onomatopoeia. Animals, tools and machinery all have many sound words associated with them. However, almost any action serves. For example, in her poem "Analysis of Baseball," May Swenson utilizes the words "thwack," "pow" and "dud" to replicate the sounds of a game for the reader. For your own poetry start with a suitable topic and brainstorm all the sounds that go with it. Think of actions, such as the swing of a hammer, as well as connections, when the hammer meets the nail, for instance. Write the words to refer to in the drafting stage.
Onomatopoeia poems may tell a story or they might explore the sounds themselves. In "Bells," Edgar Allan Poe examines many bell sounds such as "clamor," "clang" and "jangle" using the different sounds to create moods in the poem. Experiment with mood by choosing words that indicate such sounds. Consider car noises, how they sound when the engine is revving versus idling. Conversely, follow Swenson's lead in drafting a story and using onomatopoeia to bring the action alive. Use strong verbs for the actions, and add sound words to make the scene vivid.
Once you have a draft of your poem, it's time to edit it to create the desired effect. Similar to Poe's use of onomatopoeia for mood, consider how Robert Frost uses the literary device to build tension in "Out, Out-." He describes the sounds of the saw in his poem: buzz, rattle and snarl. The harsh sounds of the words add menace to a tool that later kills a boy. Consider the tone of your poem. Ask yourself if you have onomatopoeia in the most effective places, such as beginnings or endings of lines and stanzas. Read the poem aloud to gauge the sound of the words. Analyze if any changes would improve the flow of the poem.
Onomatopoeia are not the only literary devices related to sound. Assonance, alliteration and, of course, rhyme also create sound in poetry. Before publishing your poem, polish it by evaluating every word choice, image and sound in the poem. In "Piano" D.H. Lawrence creates symmetry of sound with all four literary devices. For instance, the flow of the line "…vista of years, till I see…" relies on alliteration, the repeated "s," for effect. Writing poetry requires using all the available tools; onomatopoeia is a strong one for creating mood through sound.
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