Monday, October 11, 2010

Language as Meaning and Music

Janet Reid, blogger and linker of all things enticing and of-the-moment in publishing, linked to this NY Times article by Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours. Her point was much more about the second half of the piece--who do writers write for--than it was about the first part. But it was the first part that struck me. Says Cunningham,

Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.

Writers are told to read aloud for a variety of reasons. We are told to read aloud for clunky sentences. To catch the grammar goofs that slip past the tired eye but not the alert ear. To pick up on nonsequitors and nonsense of all sorts. When was the last time you were told to read aloud for the sound only--not the meaning, just the sound?

Exactly. But that is where poetry lies. From the article: Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear.

To play with this idea, try scanning something in a different language...try this (Apollinaire, "Le Pont Mirabeau"--selections):

Sur le pont Mirabeau coule le Seine...
Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse...
...et l'esperance est violente.

It doesn't much matter what it means--the sounds have an enchanting quality. Especially, for me--les mains dans les mains restons face a face. There's actually a cadence there, a cadence that you can't avoid as a reader. Even if you don't speak French.

And how about this, in English, with a very familiar story (Tennyson, "The Day-Dream"):

A touch! A kiss! the charm was snapt.
There rose a noise of striking clocks, isn't it cool how you get the round sounds here--rOse a nOIse--followed by the hard clacks--striKing cloCKs? Stuff like that...ok, reading again...
And feet that ran, and doors that clapt,
And barking dogs, and crowing cocks;
A fuller light illumined all, love the use of lllls here...soft, like a full light.
A breeze thro’ all the garden swept,
A sudden hubbub shook the hall,
And sixty feet the fountain leapt.

It's not only the language but the sounds of the words that paint the picture here. By the way, anyone guess the familiar story here? It's Sleeping Beauty, at the moment the palace awakens. For a real study in how language can create a mood thorugh cadence and sound, read the whole poem. Yes, it's old-school. But the contrast between language in the scenes of the sleeping palace and the waking palace is stunning.

A confession from me--I have been so enraptured with plot and character and those details lately that I had started to forget why I love writing fiction in the first place--words. Beautiful, confusing, bramble-thick, simple words. Then I found some old scraps while cleaning out my old room at my parents' house this weekend--and words were the only things I cared for when writing those bits. They were, of course, useless for anyone besides myself, the pitfall Cunningham encourages the writer to avoid in the second half of the article. But still--they reminded me why I got into this messy business to begin with, and it isn't plot or even character, but language.

Despite the demand for lively pace and the importance of an arresting plot, I feel there is still a place for poetry in prose. Writing is meant for more than to deliver a reader from Plotpoint A to Plotpoint B. It's meant to transport, to enchant, to awaken--and plot doesn't do those things by itself.

Thoughts on the importance of language in fiction? Am I overstating the case? Is it equal parts meaning and music--or should it be more heavily swayed in one direction or the other?

3 comments:

mesmered said...

Once the plot's drawn up and the characters are defined in my head, it's all about the word for me and as a reader, it's a joy to read the word, to discover lustrous language, to mine metaphors and similes.
Just reading the poetry with which you have illustrated your blog makes my toes curl. I could almost feel them pulling me toward the poets concerned.

Adored this post, Rowenna! Am going to try in mu luddite way to link it to twitter and facebook for fellow writers. Apologies if I mess up!

Sharmon said...

Poetry in prose! I was just working on a poem of my own composing to go in a scene of my novel. That may be a little more literal than you were meaning. Even while writing poetry I have an addage--function first. I won't wrest the meaning I'm trying to convey to use a word that sounds better but isn't as hyaline (did I use that right? :-) ). But, if I can tweak the poem w/ more musicality, I absolutely do. I love assonance, alliteration and sonorous slant rhyme. When I just want to get back to my love of words (yeah, you can forget that in a novel edit)I just write words, and listen to their music. Often I hear the meaning in the tune, and the words take on shape and begin to speak as well as sing.
Lest you think otherwise, I don't think of myself as a poet! But I do love poetry.
Lovely post.

Rowenna said...

Memsered--thanks for the linkage! Those poems are favorites of mine...suppose you can see why :)

Sharmon--function first is a good motto :) Though sometimes I think the "feel" of the words adds to the meaning as much as their dictionary definitions!