Week 2: Sound and Sense in Literature

Last week, you were introduced to each other, to the concept of literature, and to the study of literature. We grappled with what literature is, how our own definition of literature can confine or free our reactions to literature, and common myths about interpreting literature. I hope you found a firm footing in what you want to achieve in your study here!

Most students of literature make three bad assumptions when approaching poetry. The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second mistake is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one, and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point. The third error is assuming that the poem can mean anything readers want it to mean.

William Carlos Williams wrote a verse addressed to his wife in the poem “January Morning,":

All this-
              was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
                but you got to try hard-

Williams admits in these lines that poetry is often difficult. He also suggests that a poet depends on the effort of a reader; somehow, a reader must “complete” what the poet has begun.

This act of completion begins when you enter the imaginative play of a poem, bringing to it your experience and point of view. If a poem is “play” in the sense of a game or a sport, then you enjoy that it makes you work a little, that it makes you sweat a bit.

Literature is, and has always been, the sharing of experience, the pooling of human understanding about living, loving, and dying. The best poetry has a magical quality—a sense of being more than the sum of its parts—and even when it’s impossible to articulate this sense, this something more, the power of the poem is left undiminished.

Sometimes the job of the poem is to come closer to saying what cannot be said in other genres of writing, to suggest an experience, idea, or feeling that you can know but not entirely express in any direct or literal way. The techniques of word and line arrangement, sound and rhythm, add to—and in some cases, multiply—the meaning of words to go beyond the literal, giving you an impression of an idea or feeling, an experience that you can’t quite put into words but that you know is real.

Learning Objectives for Week 2

Why have I chosen the poems this week? It's not really authors-with-crazy-hair week or authors-with-dimple-in-chin week :)

By the end of this week, you will be able to...

  • explain the conventions of reading poetry
  • generate examples of common terms used to analyze literary works
  • analyze how sound affects meaning
  • brainstorm a definition of poetry

You'll also be getting to know your classmates and instructor a bit better, too! Now, move to the next page of this tutorial. Use the "next page" link in the upper right corner of the unit OR click through the table of contents to view all pages and folders.

“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.” – Adrienne Rich