The Typewriter for Orchestra (1950) by Leroy Anderson, performed at “Voces para la Paz,” Músicos Solidarios, Auditorio Nacional de Música de Madrid, June 12, 2011. The soloist is Alfredo Anaya.
Euphony—the music good prose makes—matters. It may be the product of rhyme; of rhythm; of consonance (“The repetition of consonants or of a consonant pattern, especially at the ends of words, as in blank and think“) or assonance (“The repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds, … as in the phrase tilting at windmills“) or alliteration (“The repetition”—mostly consonantal—”of identical or similar sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables, as in on scrolls of silver snowy sentences (Hart Crane)“). Too many of these devices make a sentence sound gimmicky; too few, and your prose will be characterless, as instantly forgettable as the boilerplate legalese in a contract. (Beware especially of alliteration; it quickly becomes corny. Tabloid headline writers have a weakness for it—that, and cringeworthy puns—which is why so many New York Post heds elicit a pained reaction, somewhere between a groan and a guffaw.)
In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis recalls his father, the celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis, giving him a lesson in euphony. He talked, in a lecture at the D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose, about the time Amis père imparted a little writerly wisdom, warning him about the singsong effect of same-y prefixes and suffixes:
The only practical bit of advice he ever gave me, and I was quite slow to take it, was, we were talking about his first published story, called “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” written when he was 12, and I said, “What was it like?” and he said, “Terrible in the usual sorts of ways but also terrible in that [it was] full of false quantities. … You know, ‘raging and cursing in the blazing heat.’” I said, “What’s wrong with that? I mean, I can see it’s a bit old-fashioned…” He said, “Well, you can’t have three –ings like that. It would have to be ‘raging and cursing in the intolerable heat.’” I went upstairs and looked at the typescript of my first novel and came downstairs and said, “My novel is doggerel. It’s, you know, ‘hickory-dickory-dock/ the mouse ran up the clock.’” … It was full of that kind of thing.[In Experience, he also notes Kingsley’s admonition that one ought to avoid the repetition of such suffixes as –ics, –ives, –lys, and –tions. — M.D.]
The same went for prefixes as well as suffixes: you couldn’t have lots of pre’s and pro’s. I observe that. It’s a very important part of euphony. You obviously don’t write, “The cook took a look at the book” or “standing on the landing” but you also purge [your writing] of these repeated prefixes and suffixes. That was a good lesson.
When I interviewed Peter Manseau, a curator at the National Museum of American History who writes about religion, he told me, “The ear is a better editor than my eye.” A self-described “oral writer” who wants to sound “natural,” he reads his work-in-progress into his phone, listens to it while jogging, then edits out the bits that made him “cringe.” He said, “My prose isn’t particularly poetic, I don’t think, but in terms of what I’m trying to build, there’s some resonance there. I’m going for a quality where you feel spoken to.”
Train your ear by reading good writing aloud. (Or, if you prefer, bad: “If you read André Gide aloud for 10 minutes,” wrote the Dadaist painter and cutting wit Francis Picabia, “your breath will stink.”)
“There is a potent informational benefit from audible voice,” writes the marvelously named Peter Elbow in his essay “The Music of Form.” Elbow, emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, has given a scholarly lifetime’s worth of the thought to the relationship between spoken language and the written word. In “The Music of Form,” he points out,
When we hear naturally spoken language—or when we hear a difficult text read out loud well—we don’t have to work so hard to understand the meaning: the music of prosody enacts some of the meaning so that we ‘hear’ it. It’s as though the meaning comes to us rather than us having to go after it. So if a writer is skilled enough to write sentences that readers actually hear—hearing the accents, rhythms, and melody in the silent words on the page—readers will actually ‘hear’ some of the meaning.
Good prose isn’t by definition poetic, as Manseau’s example suggests, but it must be aware of its rhythms and the sounds it makes in the inner ear. As Elbow notes, the music of a sentence is essential to its effectiveness, amplifying and nuancing its meaning. But it isn’t just a more effective conveyor belt for meaning; it delights the mind’s ear even as it makes meaning swing. This is no small thing. Prose that plods is unreadable, and what’s unreadable isn’t read. In poetry, this musical quality is known, counterintuitively, as prosody. But poets don’t hold copyright to the music of the written word.
The last lines of Susan Sontag’s essay on the fetishization, in pop culture, of Nazi imagery, “Fascinating Fascism,” reverberated in my head long after I put the book down. Talking about the conjunction, in the mass imagination, of Nazi and S&M symbolism, she puts her finger on the perverse appeal of what she calls the aestheticization of the master/slave relationship common to Sadean sadomasochism and the eroticized brutality, in porn and art films, of Nazi jackboots, SS death’s heads, and all the rest of it. “Now there is a master scenario available to everyone,” she observes, drily. Then comes the diabolists’ liturgy: “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.” This passage never fails to make my mind prickle. The liturgical cadences, crossed with the sinister subject, create the effect of an unholy mass, whispered in the dark.
How does she do it? By pairing anaphora, the repetition of “a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases,” with parallelism, the repetition of the same or similar sentence structure (syntax). (The Scripturally literate will recognize this device from the Bible and the Torah, where it is frequently used to poetic effect.) In writing as in music, repetition is the essence of rhythm; you can’t dance to a single beat. Artfully used, as in the Sontag example, it can turn words on a page into music in the mind, fusing meaning and rhythm and sound with powerfully evocative results.
Elbow again: “Sentences are little pieces of energy or music—they have rhythm and melody—even on the page. Or, rather, they have energy, rhythm, and melody if the writer has been successful. A good sentence pulls us in and leads us on to the end; it sets up expectation and relief. Sentences, even when silent on the page, are little musical problems in trying to hold mental experiences together.”
The typewriter—I use the term figuratively—is a keyboard instrument, too.
(This article is an expanded version of a series of tweets sent on March 17, 2020.)
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