Poetic License

Taffy’s fascinating and useful post on audio abridgements led me sideways to the question of sound patterns in prose fiction.  I had a blind student in a long-ago science fiction class.  At that time, few genre works were available on talking books.  We could have hired a reader for her, but I decided to read two of the assigned works to her myself, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  The experience was good for me in a lot of ways.  For one thing, it reminded me that novel-reading used to be a matter of families reading books aloud in the evening.  It was social.  For another, it said a lot about the writers.  I have great affection for both books, but LeGuin is undeniably a better listening experience than Herbert.  Herbert’s prose moves along in a stolid, workmanlike way, but it doesn’t sing.  My student, who was a very sharp observer, heard things I had never noticed, though I had read the books silently several times.

Language was auditory well before anybody thought of writing it down.  Each language developed auditory memory devices so bards could remember prodigious documents.  It took seven or eight years of rigorous training for a would-be bard to achieve journeyman status in Irish culture, and I’m sure that was true for other societies as well.  These people were considered historians, propagandists called on to celebrate kings and new heroes, and all-around advisors.  Every king had a resident bard whose status was only slightly lower than the king’s.

Like all other languages, English had its own mnemonics.  As anyone who has wrestled with Anglo Saxon knows, apart from set-phrases called kennings, those auditory tricks boiled down to carefully limited alliteration (only three of four stressed syllables per line could alliterate), carefully varied mid-line pauses, and a limited number of stresses per line.  There were other rules, but those carried over into Middle English, despite the shock of collision with French at the time of the Norman Conquest.  French, reinforced by Latin, led to counting the number of syllables per line and the emphasis on end rhymes.  English borrowed the ballad from French as the folk form of long narrative, though great adventurers like Chaucer dared longer lines, and medieval drama began to play around with unrhymed dialogue.  It’s not an accident that unhappy students, called on to write a poem, will almost always write in ballad format unless some kind teacher liberates them from from rhyme and rhythm.

The printing press freed writers from all that poetic stuff, of course.  We’re talking fifteenth century, but the work of our greatest writer was still so loaded with mnemonics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that actors can recite great hunks of Hamlet from memory with relative ease.

So what does that have to do with modern writers and readers?  I think most readers can spot a writer with a tin ear, though very few know why.  Obvious poeticisms like rhyme or too much alliteration, which is a form of rhyme, can be irritating.  They pull the reader out of the story.  It’s strange to realize that, even when we’re reading silently, the language continues to hum along.  A full rhyme in a line of prose is like somebody singing high C without warning in a silent room.

The writer’s problem with poetic intrusion is more complicated.  I’m convinced that good writers hear what they write at some level.  I do an auditory check whenever I edit and usually get rid of rhymes, alliterations, and other obvious echoes like too many words that end in -ing.  That sounds negative and is.  A mystery ought to read quickly, with nothing between the reader and the action.  Language that pulls the reade out of the plot had better say something important.  When it doesn’t, it sounds pompous and political (note alliteration).  If it’s metrical, it sounds like a cheap advertising jingle.

So when can prose writers use poetic sound effects?  The only answer that makes sense to me is when they do it consciously, as a form of emphasis.  Take a look at two of those effects, the pause and the spondee.

The closest prose writers come to the carefully manipulated Anglo Saxon pause is the paragraph break, and some of those are obligatory.  We paragraph to indicate a change of speakers in a page of dialogue.  Making a paragraph break

emphasizes the first word of the new paragraph, and it also calls attention to the ideas at the end of the previous paragraph.  It’s a breath pause stronger than a comma or a period.  Kurt Vonnegut used frequent paragraph breaks for dramatic effect.

A spondee is a heavy stress–two stresses in Greek prosody.  It has the weight of a full poetic foot (usually two or three syllables).  In “Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea…”  (Tennyson), the first line is just one syllable hit three times with a hammer.  Bang, bang, bang.  Thud, thud, thud.  Whatever the attached meaning, the sound is ominous.  Hush, hush, hush, for example.  Try that trick the next time you want to create a moment of fright.

There are plenty of other sound effects.  I’m fond of assonance myself, echoing a vowel sound in stressed syllables.  Ahhhh–satisfied.  Ohhhh–alarmed.  Eeeee–you saw a snake.

Happy prosody.

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2 Responses

  1. May I use this article in our local writers newsletter? It’s called Literally Speaking, and will be distributed to around 20 members in Klamath Falls, Oregon. It will also be featured on our website, http://www.klamathwritersguild.org. Please let me know if i have permission to use this article. Thanks!

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