Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

Sound Sense

In pointing us to a "new sentence" from Annie Proulx, Sam Anderson at The New York Times Magazine writes:

Proulx is particularly good with how her sentences sound. She understands that words are not antiseptic little meaning-cubes to be stacked neatly into sturdy towers of logic. They are wild; they make noise. They force the humans reading them to slurp and click and hoot and pop and tap their tongues. Such sounds, combined carefully, can carry their own meaning.

Give Sam's piece a read, and then perhaps click on over to this 2013 Sentence x Sentence entry about the sounds playing meaningfully in another brief arrangement ... 

The Ear Still Does It

Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices." 

It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory. 

I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another.  And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way. 

FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.

Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.

FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.

BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —

FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.

BARRY: — who process a text in images —

FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.

BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. 

FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.

BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.

Silence

 FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.

SxS: Thirteen Words from Jean Toomer

This sentence, from Jean Toomer's "Carma," stopped me, and had me rereading aloud:

No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling sweet-gum leaves.

Thirteen words. Say them aloud and you can’t help hearing the path inward that is opened by those three iambs, a trot of monosyllabic words (“No rain has come to take”) — and then the interruption of “rustle.” Here, in the center, we hear the sound that persists in the drought. Toomer's engagement of our mind's ear then leads to something for the eye — an image that fills the absence of “no rain" with a different kind of falling. The compound specificity of "sweet-gum leaves" is conspicuous, and their action is ongoing; these leaves don’t leave but continue downward, rustling, beyond the period. 

SxS: Raindrops and Hammers

I was reminded recently of the moment from my childhood when, alone at my parents' large bookcase in our living room, I pulled out a hardcover, opened it, and discovered how wrong I was in my understanding of what those shelves held. I don't know why I had assumed that all those thick adult books were full only of historical facts. Old books with old news. Pages and pages of lifeless, unillustrated information. Nothing relevant to my life, my interests. I wish I recall what book it was that I spread open on my lap. What I do remember is that, reading, I was suddenly seeing things, hearing things, just like in the books I knew — my books. Here, too, there were places, people, voices. Images and sounds. 

I think of this when I return to two sentences of image and sound from Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (translation by Richard Zenith):

After the last drops of rain began to fall more slowly from the rooftops and the sky’s blue began to spread over the street’s paving-stones, then the vehicles sang a different song, louder and happier, and windows could be heard opening up to the no longer forgetful sun. From the narrow street at the end of the next block came the loud invitation of the first seller of lottery tickets, and nails being nailed into crates in the shop opposite reverberated in the limpid space.

I just love how these two sentences create the "limpid space" we inhabit by the end of them. Of particular interest are the directions in which Pessoa moves our attention to establish the concrete dimensions for our imaginations. 

Down fall those last drops, slowly, from the rooftops, all the way down to the street's wet paving stones that are now  — up we go —  reflecting the blue that has returned overhead. While we are both looking down and seeing up, the vehicles pass through with their songs, over the stones, in different directions, and up slide windows all around in accompaniment. In the second sentence Pessoa locates us more specifically by having us receive new sounds coming from "the end of the next block"; my imagination has me in the foreground of the picture, facing in, ears toward the sounds. From one side of the background I receive the call of that first lottery-ticket seller, and from the other the hammers striking nails.

All was quiet at the start: the last raindrops silently dripped. Now the city space is symphonically awake, and what drops are hammers. 

 

On Writing Out Loud

“One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence. I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.”

— Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (interviewed by Tin House)

SxS: Get on Stage (Part Two)

In Part One of this post, urging an imaginative approach to taking “appreciative measure” of admired sentences, I presented the material with which Richard Yates composed the very opening of his novel Revolutionary Road. Here is how he arranged that material — and steered the imagination of his readers — in the first sentence: 

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

Like so much of fiction, it’s an audio-visual experience. In this case, we start with the ear and end with the eye. Yates begins with the sound of the rehearsal receding, the last traces of voices nearly gone from the air, abandoning the Laurel Players. What are “dying sounds” at the start are nonexistent by the time we reach that past-tense “left,” and these players” play no longer; they are not actors but acted upon, stranded, without lines.

They are also stranded in the middle of the sentence, “with nothing to do.” At the center is an absence of purpose, and we’ve entered a soundless stretch in which we’re moved toward image (and an attempt to see ahead): that “blinking” in the glare of the footlights that shine on this script-less troupe. We follow their gaze; the camera pans back; we see and sense the vacancy of the auditorium.

Interesting that we begin with remnants of sound and end here, in silence, with a word (auditorium) that means a place where something is heard. We’re in a place made for sound that is soundless. Lights shine brightly on the end of something that hasn’t really even begun. The momentum here is from expectation — not of anything specifically promised or hinted at, but resulting from the desertion of what was, and the concomitant, wishful mystery of whether anything positive is ahead. A hopeful look into emptiness. If you know the novel, the sentence now likely strikes you (again) as brilliantly composed. 

How the second sentence works in conjunction with this opener to form the first paragraph of the novel deserves attention as well. But that’s a post for another day!

SxS: Iambic Soundtrack

by ALLAN REEDER


Sometimes the poetry stops me. I can be wary of hearing poetic elements at play — the rhyme or alliteration in a sentence of a short story or novel that directs my attention away from the imagined dramatic moment and to the black marks on the page.

But here’s a short sentence from Birds in Fall*, by Brad Kessler, whose iambic pentameter works in concert (so to speak — one character is a cellist flying to a performance, in Amsterdam) with what it offers to the seeing mind. The line is the second in a three-sentence paragraph. The narrator and his neighbor on the flight have ordered from the drink cart:

Our pygmy bottles arrived with roasted nuts.

Aren’t the deliveries flight attendants set down on our trays this tidy and small? Aiming to please in perfect, miniature fashion? Here, the bottles and the nuts seem animated — they’ve arrived on their own — and the momentary cartoonish portrait feels true to the experience. The iambic soundtrack nails it.

*The Kenyon Review offered an excerpt in the Spring 2006 issue.