On the sound beneath the marks

I think an acutely musical sensibility should be beneath every story that makes it into print. The words and sentences alone, black marks on the white page, stimulate the eye and intellect; the sound beneath the marks—the pulse or cadence bubbling and surfacing up through the words, expanding outward—that’s what gets to the level of the heart, cracks open the soul. The best lyrical prose does this: a particular quality of sound, operating through the language, makes me feel the elemental things—desire, grief, joy. I remember playing Debussy’s Claire de Lune for my piano teacher when I was about fifteen. I played it without making a single mistake, and when I finished I expected praise. The teacher said: ‘Well done. I didn’t hear a mistake. I didn’t hear a note of music, either.’ I think about stories this way. A piece can have grammatically correct sentences and a clean narrative arc and interesting characters, but if the language itself lacks a musical quality, in the end it isn’t literature. It’s false, somehow. Conversely, you can have a wild, idiomatic grammatical sense and no narrative arc, but if there’s music—if, as Allan Gurganus says of Barry Hannah, there’s ‘not a mark that hasn’t first been sung aloud at three a.m. beside some river at a hunting camp’—the story can still be deeply, profoundly true.

— Jamie Quatro (thanks to Matt Bell)

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.