ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

Posted by on Jun 5, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

“Stop worrying about what the poem means and just listen to the damn poem.”

                                                                U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith


If you are looking for sound for your poems, you can do worse than the letter Z: Zephyrus, Zeppelins, zeppoles, zithers, hazmat, Zip Cars and zero. Or zilch. When adding zing with Z’s you have the opportunity for zeitgeist, zebras, ziplines, puzzles, seizures, caesuras, or you can write an homage to the day when Thoreau met Zorro and they discussed Zora Neale Hurston.

Z seems to be inexorably linked with onomatopoeia, so simply by using z words, you can get the joyous sounds of sizzle and razzle dazzle. So how do you avoid ridiculous alliteration when writing with z words? I myself start thinking of zillions of zinc zebras sashaying and soft-shooing to a lazy-paced waltz at the end of the alphabet. The letter Z is made for sound, and sound is the engine of poetry. If you permit a variation of synesthesia, think of sound as movement in poetry.


The zoetrope, is an optical wonder that started as a child’s toy and was the precursor for modern film. The zoetrope is a circular device with printed images inside that creates the illusion of movement when spun. A rudimentary but working version was created in China as early as 180 AD. You view the images through the slits in the side, and the images “move” inside. Zoetropes were sometimes described as “persistence of vision” toys. Your goal as a poet is to leave the reader with an image or sound or motion after the poem is done. Z words mixed with images and ideas are perfect for poetry.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.


Spoken word poetry can be a revelation. I use a lot of audio and video to explore poetry with first-year writing students who engage with the form because the emphasis, nuance, phrasing and emotion are provided for them. It’s as reliable as a Zippo lighter.

G. Yamazawa’s fabulous poem “Elementary” won the 2014 National Slam Finals. “Elementary” is about homophobia, and begins with the memorable line “I was so young, I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I called someone gay.” Yamazawa’s poem has motion. He mixes metaphor, image, confession, anger, and performance. The poem moves, even on the page: “I notice that words have gravity/I’ve seen them crush people.”

Take a look at Yamazawa’s work on YouTube, and while you’re there check out Jamila Lysicott’s “How to Speak English 3 Ways” or Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You.” O’Hara had fun with sound and words: “Having a coke with you is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona.”

Another Spezialität on the YouTube menu is Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” Smith manages to do a lot of heavy lifting with sound and repetition: “…& no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy.”


When you are creating a poem and get stuck, fall back on sound. You are working in words in an oral art form that was meant to be heard. Gertrude Stein had a talent for punishing prose and making it work hard, and had an odd ear for sound: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her famous quip about Oakland is similar: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” 

Vladimir Nabokov knew sound. Look at this excerpt from Lolita: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Sidebar: Z TV

“Zoinks” is a word that should be familiar to anyone that has ever seen the cartoon Scooby-Doo. It was a favorite oath of slacker Shaggy, and was declared loudly, usually with a bit of trepidation and surprise. (Sixties TV also gave us the Batman “Fight Words” appearing on the screen in jagged dayglo balloons like the word Zonk! which might appear Robin punched The Joker. The words were typically accompanied by shrill horn sounds.) The word zoinks is derived from a word common in Shakespearean Elizabethan English, zounds, which means “by Christ’s wounds,” referring to the stigmata, and was considered a swear. Gadzooks is also a watered-down cousin, a PG oath. Zoinks and zounds sound zany, and if you unpack them you find a key event in Christianity. You can probably use them as swears, too, and no one will notice.


I am working on drafts of a poem called “How the Mayans Invented Television” a title clipped from the 80’s punk film Repo Man. I liked the sound of the Mayan snake god Kulkulkan: it climbs, dips, and zips as if on a rollercoaster. I also use his Spanish name, Quetzalcoatl, pronounced Ketzal Koat.

I read drafts of my poems out loud. Many lines crash and burn like a Zeppelin, and some make progress. Hearing the work out loud unlocks the poem.

We may never agree on what makes a good poem. But image, sound, and ideas make a potent combination. Especially sound. To quote Count Basie, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

With your next poem, you could do worse than building a metaphoric Zoetrope.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.

Christopher Madden is an educator, writer, poet, and editor at Woodhall Press. He is the editor of The Astronaut’s Son, a finalist for the 2018 Foreward Indie Book Awards. He is the co-director of the Black Rock Art Guild Performing Artists.