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: 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 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)