Onomatopoeia is an example of how art can imitate life. This figure of speech is the technique of using a word that imitates the sound of something. For example, the word "hiss" mimics the sound a snake makes. Graphic novel writers often use onomatopoeia in their craft, using words like "Pow" to indicate a punch. However, poets find this device useful, too. A poet uses onomatopoeia to create a sound within his poem, and therefore affect the power of the poem. Thunder can "boom," people can listen to "tinkling" pianos, and animals can "moo" and "cluck" or "chitter" to great effect. The descriptive words you choose help determine the feel or mood of the poem.
Reading literary examples of onomatopoeia provides a foundation for the aspiring poet to get a sense of how these words can be used effectively to convey mood and meaning. For example, in his poem "The Bells" Edgar Allan Poe experiments with all the different sounds bells can possibly make, including tinkle, jingle, chime, clang and clash. Robert Frost employs onomatopoeia to create a mechanical villain in "Out, Out-." He uses the words "buzz," "snarl" and "rattle" to describe the menacing sounds a saw makes before cutting off a boy's hand. May Swenson deliberately describes the various sounds of a baseball in her "Analysis of Baseball" with words like "dud," "pow" and "thwack." Even nursery rhymes use onomatopoeia. For example, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" includes a wide array of animal noises, and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" even has sounds in the title.
Topic and Brainstorming
To begin writing an onomatopoeia poem, decide on the topic. This will help you to focus on brainstorming words that fit the idea you're trying to convey. For example, if you wanted to write about a cat, you might think of all the associated sounds: meow, hiss, purr, swish, trill. Then you could brainstorm sounds that are associated with movement, such as patter, zoom or swish. If you'd rather write a technology themed poem, machines make sounds such as: beep, clang, click, clank, whomp or whir.
After brainstorming your topic and associated examples of onomatopoeia, it is time to draft the poem, finding ways to insert examples of onomatopoeia that fit the mood of your piece. If you are writing about a peaceful scene with cats, you might include "purr" or "trill" to indicate the mood. To describe an angry animal, "yowl" and "hiss" work well. Reading the poem aloud is useful as you make sure the sounds you've chosen are creating the desired effects.