Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet

"Pleasure" is probably not the first word that springs to the mind of a high school student required to study rhyme schemes, iambic pentameter, enjambment, quatrains, and epigrammatic couplets. While teaching some of the formal terms used to describe sonnets will be one of the aims of this lesson, our starting point and central focus throughout will be learning to appreciate the sounds of poetry. For it is in sound--and in the subtle interplay of sound and form and meaning--that much of the pleasure of poetry resides. By focusing on the sounds of poetry, the exercises below seek to demonstrate that there is always an underlying sense of form or structure at work in language, whether we happen to know the names for the formal elements of poetry or not.

At the heart of the lesson are its seven sound experiments, designed to help students understand how form, meter, and rhythm all combine to shape our experience of poetry, and the meanings we derive from it. After some preliminary sound experiments with Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky," we turn to Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, a model of how the sonnet form, with its dense knitting together of sound and meaning, can suggest an astonishing variety of emotional effects.

In the capstone activity, sound experiment 7, students choose a sonnet from the Sonnet Bank, a collection of links to online sonnets, organized into historical periods from Elizabethan England to Twentieth Century America, and drawn from a diverse group of well- and lesser-known writers. The resources of the Sonnet Bank hint at the remarkable durability and adaptability of the sonnet form, and hint as well at the extensive online resources for studying poetry.

Guiding Questions

How does sound influence meaning in poetry?

Learning Objectives

Experience and enjoy the sounds of poetry

Perform "sound experiments" with sonnets

Closely read and analyze a sonnet by Shakespeare

Learn terms describing the formal elements of sonnets

Write a brief analysis of how sound affects meaning in a sonnet chosen from the Sonnet Bank

Produce recordings of a chosen sonnet and share with other students