Sound Clusters

Gregory Orr

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 140.

The American poet Theodore Roethke, like his contemporary Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet, loved sonic richness in poems. This is perhaps most evident in Roethke’s lyrics about the commercial greenhouse his father ran, where the poet worked as a child. In his poem “Root Cellar,” for example, Roethke uses sound to create a dense composition that is the sonic equivalent of the intense odors and textures of that place:

Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime
piled against slippery planks.

That we may not have any experience of root cellars doesn’t matter much: The nouns are pretty common, and the sonic intensity born of thumping monosyllables—alive with vowel variety, assonance, and the dance of plosives—carries us along.

Sonic pleasures of various kinds are at the heart of poetry. They derive from the language intensification that defines this curious form of literature. If you’re interested in cultivating such pleasure for your readers—and yourself—here’s an exercise that involves playing with sound while at the same time encouraging inventiveness.

The exercise consists of using eight specific words and following a few rules. Here are the words:

  1. Green
  2. Grab
  3. Brag
  4. Gravel
  5. Bashful
  6. Habit
  7. Fish (used as a verb or a noun, it doesn’t matter)
  8. Hollow

Here are the rules:

  1. Use all eight words in a poem that is ten to twelve lines long.
  2. You can use them in whatever order you wish.
  3. You can’t use more than one of the listed words in each line (i.e. no trying to jam all the leftovers into the last line).

If you find yourself engaged by the echoes and effects that these eight words produce, feel free to use words of your own choosing that continue, expand on, or play off their sounds. To do so will heighten, and possibly alter, the sonic texture of your poem.

If my chosen words have no appeal for you, then draft your own sonic-cluster of random words, then try them with the above rules. It’s a deep and mysterious fact of poetry that we all respond to sounds and sound patterns differently. My ear and tongue take pleasure in those lines of Roethke, but they may be too rich or cloying for another reader. Fifty years of writing poems has taught me this: Find the “music” that you most enjoy, and try to use it in your poems. No one can or should legislate another poet’s sense of sound-pleasure.


Gregory Orr is the author of thirteen poetry collections, including Selected Books of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). His prose books include A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Norton, 2018) and Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, Orr taught there from 1975–2019 and was founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing.

Art: Papop Ruchirawat