Sound should make sense: better poetry commentaries

Sound should make sense: just as the poet uses sound to enrich the meaning as well as the emotional and pleasurable aspects of poems, so should you try to write sensibly about the linking of sound to meaning in your commentaries.  What does the poet gain by manipulating the sound possibilities of language?

One of the challenges candidates face when so writing about poetry is how they can usefully address the sound effects that are both present in and intended by poets in just about every poem we read.

One good principle that will help you integrate what you observe and analyse about sound effects in poetry is this:

Sound is usually present in the poem to support meaning.

If you approach your discussion of sound in a poem with a view to showing how sound supports the meaning, you are likely to be able to estimate both the effects created by the meaning hand-in-
hand with those created by sound. And that is a good thing! It validates the exploration of sound effects in your commentaries.

Before we get on to the sample, read Margaret Atwood’s ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ which you can find here.  Below is an example of one candidate’s comment on sound supporting and illuminating meaning, adding  impact and pleasure to the words:

‘The sibilance of the first five stanzas is essential to the movement of the poem, softening the impact of length with momentum, and carrying the reader along just as the boy is swept into the river where ‘he swirled with ice and trees in the swollen water.’. . . . The sibilance also contributes to the dreamy mood of this section of the poem and movingly develops the mother’s meditative elegy for her son.’

Then, combining the sibilance with plosives, the candidate writes ‘In the third stanza, Atwood combines these ’s’ sounds with plosive sounds, which in this context evoke a surreal sense arising also from fantastic imagery, offering ‘bathysphere’ and ‘his eyes thin glass bubbles’ in the underwater place,‘stranger than Uranus.’ The mother’s voice is reaching for imagery that can convey her anguish; the sound patterns speak both of that and of her love for her child, gentle and fierce at the same time.’

In these few sentences you can see the candidate illuminating the meaning by looking at it in conjunction with both sound and imagery.

It’s not always possible to bring things together in such an integral way, but it is something worth aiming for.

What you don’t want to do is see the analysis of sound as a ‘counting-up’ exercise of all the alliteration, onomatopoeia, pauses you believe caused by punctuation, end-rhymes and the like, without connecting them to the delivery of meaning. That’s the key: connect!

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