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The Power of Sound:
An Analysis of the Use of Sound in Selected
Beau F., English 202
Clemson University, Spring 2005
Poetry is a literary form distinguished by its use of the subtle nuances of language. Where prose writers have time to develop plots and characters, the compact nature of poetry forces poets to utilize all of the aspects of the language in an efficient manner.
One of the more important tools poets use is the sound of words as they are spoken. This poetic tool is emphasized in the poems “The Secretary Chant” by Marge Piercy and “Player Piano” by John Updike. These two poems exemplify the usage of sound to support a theme and emphasize the meaning of a poem.
One way in which Marge Piercy utilizes sound in “The Secretary Chant” is to approximate the sounds of an office by using onomatopoeia in certain places of the poem. Piercy, known for “her gift for precise description,” uses sound as her key mode of description in this poem (Booklist 1221).
Two lines, in particular, demonstrate the use of onomatopoeia to elucidate the image of a woman becoming a machine. Line seven blurts out, “Buzz. Click.” and line 14 rings off the noise of a cash register - “Zing. Tinkle.”
Piercy is attempting to present an image of the speaker as a woman crossed with office equipment; dehumanized by her job. The noises which the speaker makes are obviously not human sounds. Indeed, they are the sounds of the machines that surround the secretary all day as she performs the mechanical tasks of the office.
Alexis Tadie wrote in his essay, “From the Ear to the Eye,” that an emphasis on sound suggests that the reader must be aware of the materiality of the world and its acoustic properties (Syrotinski and Maclachlan 110).Updike certainly follows this suggestion in “Player Piano.”
His use of sound describing the piano gives a sense of reality to the idea that the piano is a living entity. The first two lines read, “My stick fingers click with a snicker/And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys.” When read aloud, one can imagine the piano talking to them in a series of clicks and clucks.
The repeating “-ick” sound in the first line mimics the noise the player piano’s parts make as they prepare to strike the keys. Then, the movement of the larger keys is described using “-uck” sounds; implying a larger, more clumsy mechanism. This contrast throughout the poem lends an air of realism to the description.
Along with the individual sounds of words, both authors also use the rhythm of their poetry to enhance the theme of mechanization in “The Secretary Chant” and “Player Piano.”
Piercy uses short bursts of sound with a flat tone to approximate the voice of a robot. (Meyer 702) This staccato rhythm results in a further solidification of the theme. While the speaker is clearly a human secretary, her voice has become machine-like as her humanity has been taken form her by the menial and mechanical tasks of her job.
Similarly, Updike mimics the rhythm of an old-time player piano tune in his poem. The rhythm almost provides musical accompaniment to the poem (Meyer 865). One can imagine a ragtime song playing along with the words.
"But never my numb plunker fumbles,
Misstrums me, or tries a new tune."
He supports the motif that the piano is uncontrolled by humans with the cacophonic rhythm of line 11. “But never my numb plunker fumbles,” While this line is difficult for the human reader to say, it comes naturally to the speaker of the poem. The piano almost teases; bragging about its unfaltering precision while the reader stumbles over the awkward rhythm.
In conclusion, the use of sound in poetry can help to emphasize themes and make imagery more vivid. The words in a poem have not only a literal meaning, but also a more primitive, aesthetic meaning as well. By using the sounds of words and the interaction of these sounds, a skillful poet can create a better understanding of the themes he or she proposes.
Absolute Sound Effects Archive. 2005. 25 Apr. 2005 <http://www.grsites.com/
“Book Review: Circles in the Water.” Booklist 72 (1982): 1221
Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005
Microsoft Office XP. Vers. 10.4205.4219. Microsoft, 2002.
Partners in Rhyme. 25 Apr. 2005 <http://www.partnersinrhyme.com/
Syrotinsky, Michael, and Ian Maclachlan. Sensual Reading: New Approaches to Reading in Its Relations to the Senses. London: Associated University Presses, 2001