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.