Sound in “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”

Image courtesy of Natesh Ramasamy under licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

My interpretation of this poem has to do with our perception of reality; the subject of the poem hears a cry outside his window and becomes aware of the outside world gradually, by considering and reconsidering the sound. Likewise, the word “outside” is repeated three times throughout the poem, allowing the reader to experience it over and over, just like the man in the poem is experiencing the bird’s cry. This repetition mimics and reinforces the effect of the bird’s cry on the man, creating that same effect for the reader.

Another strong example of Stevens’ sound work connecting to meaning of this poem occurs in lines 2 and 13: “scrawny cry.” Without the adjective “scrawny,” this cry Stevens is describing could really refer to any type of loud noise—a baby crying, for example. But the “aw” sound of “scrawny,” combined with the c of “cry” (and also the c in “scrawny” itself), evoke a cawing sort of noise, like a crow or a raven. Indeed, in the second stanza, we learn that the cry the man hears is a “bird’s cry” (line 5). Thus, Stevens’ deliberate word choice—and the sound of that word—lends itself nicely to the poem’s meaning.

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