Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Poetry sound check


Here’s a useful reminder of ways to think about and effectively use sound when writing poetry. I like the poetry sound check list at the end. Everybody does No. 1. How many do numbers 2 & 3, I wonder?

Poetry Sound Check

Try some of these activities to get a sense of how your poetry sounds.

1. Read your poems aloud as part of the writing and revision process.

2. Ask a friend or family member to read one of your poems aloud to you. Pay attention to where the reader stumbles. Try substituting different words in these places.

3. Record yourself reading your poems. Listen without copies of the poems in front of you, focusing on the sounds.

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

7 thoughts on “Poetry sound check

  1. Number one, always.
    Number two, never. It would be very hard for me to allow a poem-draft in all its goopy vulnerability into someone else’s mouth at anything but a very late stage (i.e., published).
    Number three, sometimes. Especially in later drafts, when I want to focus on the cadence of the lines, the small words, the most nuanced of rhythms.

    I’d also add a number four – I will read working drafts at my poetry readings, often, announcing to the audience that this poem is recent and still in the works. Reading in front of others helps me hear the work in yet another way (don’t ask me why). And it adds another sort of intimacy to the event–they’re hearing a poem that no one else may hear, in quite that way, ever.

    • Hey, I like your number four.

      One ‘next-level for Voice Alpha suggested by a reader is to set up a sound poetry workshop, where people would post readings of each other’s drafts (goopy vulnerability and all!). I liked the idea, just thought it would be challenging technologically.

  2. I do all four: your three plus Sarah’s, except that I commit my work to memory and recite/perform it. In my experience, excessive difficulty in memorizing something is a fairly reliable indicator that it sounds bad.

    • I don’t memorize all my work, Colin–that’s a goal of mine I haven’t attained yet! But when I do, I have the same reaction — the words that I have the most trouble remembering are the weakest links.

  3. i like what colin added here: “In my experience, excessive difficulty in memorizing something is a fairly reliable indicator that it sounds bad.”

    i do the first all the time and the third once i start to think the poem is “almost done”. just as colin said, if i struggle to memorize the poem, i realize that something is “off”. it’s not usually just a word, but the phrasing/tempo that is also off.

    the second suggestion- i am not around anyone who likes poetry at all to ask them to read what i am working on, but i do that sometimes with other writers over the cell phone.

  4. When I began to memorize a poem, I re-wrote or tweaked nearly every image, line. That surprised me. A stronger poem emerged, though.

  5. I do 1 & 2 (2 via a workshop, where we regularly hear our poems in each other’s voices), and should definitely try 3 (despite my technology challenge…so it would be on a mini tape recorder!) and the memorization thing!

    Like Sarah, I do often read a poem-in-progress at a reading, thanking the audience in advance for their listening help!

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