When student readers struggle with poetry, it's often the relationship between sound and sense that presents a high degree of difficulty. It's very easy to be overcome by pitter-patter rhythms and arcane names for metrical techniques and poetic forms.
But picking sound patterns may help to open up a variety of interpretations. This means shifting from the identification of a local effect to the elaboration of more complex and nuanced semantic possibilities.
The first sonic task for the critical reader involves the spotting of similar sounds such as alliteration. A higher level of creative reading requires sensitivity in order to link these sound clusters to the poem's questions, and its answers.
A great poem holds together, in tight compression, the different elements of form and technique, tones and style, form and content. Critical writing - the exposition and appreciation of a poem - involves a reversal of this process: decompression.
By association, sounds breed other sounds, and suggest other senses. Often the sound elements will help to unlock the key themes in a poem. In fact, sounds may help us to identify the main theme, and also may help us to point out its component parts. Subliminally, perhaps, the sounds also hint at multiple levels and layers of meaning. Packed into a small space, such as a sonnet, a poem is bursting at the seams. The poet binds the elements together using form and technique.
Sound associations help to hold everything together. . Also, sounds help us to focus on a cluster of meanings. They also open up new possibilities for interpretation.
One strategy which I often find productive is to identify the relationship between words with similar sounds and their meanings. This approach combines thoughts and feelings: sound and sense.
In the example that follows, I've selected S as my key sound, in order to unlock the poem in some way, by attending to one element of its sound world. But I'm sure that you guessed that already, right?
Let's try this out on a poem called 'Futility' composed by the First World war poet Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918):
(What s-words would you associate with war? perhaps your class could compile a list before they read this poem?)
Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
The first thing that you might spot is that it's a Sonnet. Unusually, the poem is presented in two sections, each with Seven lines. Why do you think seven is significant?
Perhaps the most significant alliterative S-words are sun, snow, seeds, star, sleep, seeds, sides, stir, still, sunbeams ...
But note also the s-sounds in France, whispering, fields, its, this, clays, limbs, wakes, rouse, once, so, was, fatuous, earth's ...
The poem's meaning emerges from a variety of oppositions between past, present, and future; between hot and cold; the living and the dead.
The sun is God-like and has the potential for stimulation, animation and creation (in seven days); this moves out into 'seeds' and 'stirs' ... and through 'rouse,' 'whispering' and 'wakes.' This is the poetic of life and arousal.
In this sense, 'move', is not simply a physical displacement, but perhaps an address to the reader on the possibility of being of being moved - the capacity to experience emotion. But the potential for human warmth of feeling is constantly ebbing away, caught up in the sterility of the poem's title: futility.
Is the whispering a trick? Does the prevalence of s suggest the serpent or the snake (absent from the poem), and the fatal attraction of war? Does this stretch the misreading that is emerging, or does it start to reveal what is masked? Divine light seems like a mockery in the context of widescale madness and universal tragedy. Such, in nihilistic terms, is the futility of life.
Is there a meaning to life? Perhaps we will seek in vain for answers in poems? Is there an answer to war? Doesn't poetry, in fact, thrive on inner conflicts, the tensions in a line, the multiple oppositional meanings at war, all boxed up in a little room, in the stanza, in the sonnet?
Accordingly, the life affirming s-world is balanced by the opposite s-words, such as : sleep, still, snow; this is the poetics of death and extinction.
Then there are all the half-rhymes that suggest two worlds that don't really fit together. The poem resists harmony and symmetry. Too much formal order, too systematic and rigid an approach, is not what is needed?
The poem has become a cold monument to the living, the supreme art form that mocks life just as it re-animates it in the repetition of reading the words on the page, the lexis of a dead poet.
Like bodies, poems are alive, full-nerved, and warm. But they are also dead things; they are moments eternally frozen in time. That's why the romantic writer John Keats is such a great influence on Wilfred Owen. You recall perhaps the wild frenzy and violence depicted on his Grecian Urn, and its ambiguous first line
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness
Keats imagined a generation wasted by old age; Owen witnessed his generation destroyed by war. Despite finding a deathly cold-pastoral in the immortal object of art, Keat's opted for a judgement that was potentially affirmative
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Owen is perhaps more bitter. The warmth that was there at the outset becomes ironic with the impossibility, the futility of 'kind' and 'know' that terminate the first half of the sonnet. What does he know?
His poem ends with a question, rather than the answer to the situation that he presents.
But there are also sound possibilities than don't find their way into the poem. Why not compare the poem's s- words with your s- sound expectations. Then formulate your own questions...
For me, there were two s-words that did not find their way into the poem.
© Dr Ian McCormick.Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.
Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.
A First World War School Activity Day - Programme and Schemes of Work . A Free Resource.
"Ugly Urchin Alliteration: a Poetry Appreciation Primer." Blog.
"Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!" Blog.