Words that make Sounds

By Gary Lehmann

A couple of years ago, I encountered Mona Van Duyn’s 1973 poem, “What the Motorcycle Said,” and I was immediately captivated by the way she manipulates letters to create sounds which I instantly recognize as the language of motorcycles. I never thought about what motorcycles might have to say, and I’m not altogether sure that this particular motorcycle has stayed up with the latest cool trends, but I liked her effort to give an inanimate object a voice.

Br-r-r-am-m-m, rackety-am-m, OM, Am:
All---r-r-room, r-r-ram, ala-bas-ter---
Am, the world’s my oyster.

What a way to start out a poem! To get the full effect, you have to rev the handlebar pretty hard and let her find the groove. Read these lines over a few times out loud, and you’ll soon begin to get the feel of it. This poem got me to thinking about how many different ways poets use words to indicate sounds, and just what an amazingly untapped resource sound words are in poetry.

Of course, Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem “The Bells” uses the word bells repeatedly to simulate the sound of bells pealing in a tower or across a town. You can hear the celebration as the bells roll on.

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
     From the bells, bells, bells, bells
          Bells, bells, bells---
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Here the repetition of the word “bells” is used to create a reproduction in hard, silent print of the sound the bells themselves might make, but on beyond this, Poe bootlegs in the obscure Latin word “tintinnabulation,” adds a rhyme [wells/bells], and tops his line off with the properly onomatopoeic words “jingling” and “tinkling,” ending with that nice bit of interior rhyme. The whole affect is achieved by using words as emblems for the sounds they seek to represent.

Now let’s separate some of the parts of this complex puzzle. Onomatopoeia is properly understood as a word that imitates a sound, such a “bow-wow” or “meow”. It should be pointed out, however, that linguists have had trouble with onomatopoeia as a concept, because at some level most words have an auditory precursor of some kind which makes this distinction very slippery.

For example, while we might agree that “hiss” makes the sound it denominates, it is not so clear whether “crash” represents in letters anything we might currently describe as a crash. Cars with chrome bumpers sound different as they make contact with each other at cruising speed from cars with bumpers made of hollow plastic or foam. Is a side impact crash still a “crash,” or should it be a described as a “crumple” or even a “screech”? Metal plates and plastic components don’t make the same sounds when they come into sudden contact with each other, and yet we describe them all with the supposedly onomatopoeic word “crash”

Why? Clearly the sound itself does not cause the letters to configure themselves on a page in anyparticular way. Why does rain go “drip” or “drop”? Why does blood “spatter,” while water “sprays”? Why are words like “splash” associated with water or “bang” with guns?

The point is that while a word might gain an initial association with a sound, circumstances change, culturally or linguistically, but the written description of the sound rarely changes. Slowly but inevitably, the letters that have come to represent a sound become disassociated from the sound that engendered the word. The word becomes purely symbolic, like any other word, and the term onomatopoeia loses its distinguishing meaning. In the example given above, the word “bell” does not actually sound like a bell ringing until it is set within a context which makes that association clear. “Bell” in isolation is an object, not a sound. So is it the word that is conveying that meaning in Poe’s poem or the context in which it is being presented?

At some level, virtually all meaning words [as opposed to associational words like “the,” “neither” or “so”] are metaphorical in character. A poet uses the word “vehicle” instead of “car,” “auto” or “automobile,” because each of these words is commonly associated with a different set of meanings and implications. When you use one word instead of another, you associate yourself with the total package. A word comes with all its relatives and family members tagging along. When you marry yourself to any particular word, you take on the whole family, its history and legacy.

From the poet’s point of view, this is very important, because it means that each word does double, triple, quadruple duty by building layers of meaning into a poem. Yet, it seems that modern poetry has sold out to prose more than it probably should for its own good. Words like “vrooooom” or even “ugh!” make a poem much more lively, even if they do not appear in a dictionary. Words that sound like what they name tap into a deep auditory vocabulary we all carry around with us: ping, hush, pop, crackle, or blast.

Consider this poem, entitled “The Great Figure,” by William Carlos Williams.

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Williams has here selected words like “howls” because the word sounds vaguely like a siren. Indeed, “siren” itself sounds like what it is in nature, a long winding noise of warning. The word “siren” has something of a scream in it. Presumably, had no such words existed, Williams would have made them up, and that’s OK too so long as the made-up word taps into a sufficiently long pattern of affiliation to make the word do the heavy lifting of other sound words.

That’s why I think the word “rumbling” is absolutely the right word to use in William’s poem, because those letters approximate the concatenation of noises a fire engine’s rubber tires produce as they careen over a cobbled street on its way to a fire. This poem was written in 1921. Williams is almost certainly talking about the Patterson or Rutherford Fire Department, and so “rumbling” is just right.

Nowadays, of course, NJ roads are made of concrete or asphalt, and the tires of a fire truck are much like any other heavy truck tires, and so, they don’t actually rumble any more. It’s more like a hum or a buzz perhaps. Still, we retain this collective recollection of a “rumble” in our minds and associate it with fire trucks even while the cause of this association no longer exists. Whew! There is a lot more to this sound/word association pattern than first meets the eye.

For poets all these fine distinctions are quite important, because in these fine denominations of words, the poet finds the power to suggest much more than is actually stated in a text. Sound words amplify and enrich a text. Picking the right one is extremely important. The sounds associated with a word by tradition add powerfully unexpected elements to a poem, and conversely, a poem with no sound associations has all the power of a penny whistle on a windy night.

But, listen, I gotta split, or as Mona Van Duyn says,

Br-r-r-am-m-m, rackety-am-m, OM, Am:
All---gr-r-rin, oooohgah, glutton----
Am, the world’s my smilebutton.

I’m outta here. Tootles!

March 5, 2005