Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Blame it on the boogie

by Bill Kirton

When asked for advice in workshops, I usually say the same three things:
  1. Trust your own voice. You don’t necessarily need big, fancy or poetic words, or a huge vocabulary. Your way of putting things is unique, so trust it.
  2. Read what you’ve written aloud. This applies whether it’s a chapter, a poem or a letter of complaint to your electricity supplier. Reading aloud reveals mistakes, repetitions, places where punctuation’s absent and should be present and vice versa, and other things which just ‘don’t feel right’. It also makes you realise that your sentences are maybe all around the same length, so there’s a monotony about your delivery.
  3. Make writing and editing separate exercises. Finish the writing, set it aside for as long a period as you can, then return to it as an editor. And cut, cut, cut. Almost all writing is better for being cut.
It’s the reading aloud bit that I want to focus on here because, apart from the mistakes and omissions it reveals, it also brings home the importance of rhythm. Rhythm’s an obvious element in poetry but it’s just as important in stories, novels or the letter of complaint.

In more formal types of poetry, there are usually rules about where stresses should fall. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is a typical iambic pentameter – di-dah di-dah di-dah-di-dah-di-dah. If you switch the stress to the second syllable, the iamb becomes a trochee – dah-di dah-di dah-di dah-di dah-di, as exemplified in Hiawatha:
‘By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,’

You can, of course, create other effects by mixing them up, and then there are the more complicated ones whose names I’ve forgotten, such as the galloping horses of:
‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.’

The point is that, in poetry and prose, rhythm gives you another string to your writing bow. As well as conveying your thinking and your effects through what the words mean, you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her by gentler or broken rhythms.
For example, I don’t think it matters in the slightest if you don’t know the meaning of:

‘And I shall pluck ’til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’

The combination of images and rhythms is enough to make you feel good.

And rhythms often give the meaning even greater resonance. Othello, for example, was a great orator, with plenty of noble lines such as ‘Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife; the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’

But his self-assurance and conceit break down when Iago suggests that Desdemona’s unfaithful, and he loses control. See what happens to the rhythms in ‘It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?—Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!’

Rhythm works in all sorts of ways, even in humble prose. So read your stuff out loud to check that the rhythms are working for you.

1 comment:

Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks for sharing this, Bill. The rhythm of language is an interesting thing. People talk about literary fiction as being language driven and genre fiction as other, but the best writers in any genre know how to use rhythm.

James Lee Burke and William Kent Krueger come to mind. The poetry in Krueger's IRON LAKE is enough to make the Bard himself proud.