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 ... 

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: Iambic Soundtrack


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.