Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sound of Prose - Part I

Morning everyone. Thank you so much for all the support on Tahereh's post on Friday, I thought it went very well.

I've finished the novel I was reading and have yet to hit the library or the bookstore so over the weekend I was glancing back at Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, which is not my favorite book on writing but certainly in my top five. In it he talks about the SOUND of writing. I've always cared about this aspect of my words a lot so I thought a would devote a post or two to it.

To me sound (in writing) has always been about rhythm, cadence and diction. He also describes something he calls echoes which in its simplest form is only repeated words or ideas but also grows more complicated. I'm not really smart enough to explain it here so if you want to know more you should get the book. These topics may not seem very important in prose, especially since it is rarely read out loud, and it's true, they are quite subtle but can sometimes make the difference between good writing and great writing.

Diction in its simplest definition is only about the choice of word to use in a specific situation, but it's more than that I think. The illustrious Bryan Russell (Ink) wrote a great post with more in-depth analysis of the concept here.

Cadence would seem to only apply to writing read out loud, and certainly it is much more prominent in poetry, or spoken word, or song, but I find that I consider carefully the beats in a sentence and I hope that this will lead to better balance within a paragraph, a page, a sentence.

Rhythm is much more primal, of course, and in many ways is similar to cadence, but Lukeman makes a great point about the length of sentences and how altering the rhythm of a passage on purpose can make something stand out or slip behind some other ideas. A short sentence surrounded by longer ones can drive a point home with added emphasis.

He suggests that the best way to learn about the sound of prose (other than reading your work out loud or having someone read it to you) is to study poetry. So this week I'm going to feature some of my favorite poems that hopefully are all in the public domain and won't get me into trouble for posting here. I have no college degree and have not studied poetry since high school so I won't give much analysis but maybe I'll introduce someone out there to something new.

Today's poem is Ozymandias. It's a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, first published in 1818. I believe that he was the husband of Mary Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein, but I could be wrong about that; please correct me in the comments if so:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The theme here is of course about the decline of civilizations and empires but that is not the point I'm trying to make. I'm not sure why I love this poem or why it has stuck in my mind all these years but I do think the rhythm of Shelley's words has something to do with it. The meter is decasyllabic, which means that there are 10 syllables to each line. It is interesting because it almost seems like the poem could do without the first line and a quarter, but that of course would throw the cadence all to hell.

So that's it for today. Please leave your thoughts in the comments and thanks for visiting!


Slamdunk said...

Great poem--thanks for sharing.

Emily White said...

Often when I write, I visualize my words on sheet music. There are fortissimos and pianissimos, decrescendos and crescendos. I don't know why this happens, but it comes naturally to me. I see the book as a whole as a symphony. Perhaps this is why I must ALWAYS listen to music when I write.

This is a wonderful poem. It's one of my favorites, too.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Love this post, Matt. All three are priceless, but I can really relate to rhythm. I find that aspect of constructing a paragraph so interesting. One can use practically the same words but order them in different ways--a longer sentence here, a shorter sentence there...maybe even an incomplete sentence--and highlight a different idea.

Dissecting a paragraph like that is such a great exercise.

Unknown said...

I love what you have come up with! What a brilliant idea to take his advice and share it with us over the blog... these are my favorite weeks!

I love the poem you chose, being one who doesn't read a lot of poetry it helps broaden my mind! Thanks for sharing Matthew!

Stephanie Lorée said...

The First Five Pages was the 3rd book on the craft I ever read (assuming we don't count school textbooks). It is still among my favorite writing books. Lukeman presents some really brilliant tips in a concise format.

Great article. The poem is lovely. Thanks for sharing!

Vicki Rocho said...

I'm usually a bit intimidated by poetry. It's such a personalized thing. The ones that speak to me probably won't whisper to others. I suppose that's part of the magic of it, though.

Another good post, thanks!

Jessica Bell said...

Great post! I love a nice flowing rhythm to prose. There's something so magincal about it. Thanks for sharing!

Alissa Grosso said...

Great idea. I was an English major in college, but always struggled with poetry, and didn't really "get" it until I had this really great professor who would spend several class periods going over a single Wordsworth poem.

Oh, and Percy was Mary's husband, that is after he dumped his first wife for her. There's a great book about the Shelleys and Byron called The Monsters by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.

Candyland said...

Great post. I love the sound of poetry in motion. In book form, when I write, I try to hear the rhythm in my head. Love this poem.

angelarene said...

Stalker love Lukeman! He has a new book about Plot I'm dying to get my hands on...Thx for reiterating his wisdom for us and I loved the poem. I also love how in Shelly's time the old English words seemed richer somehow.

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Ahhhh, Ozymandias is one of my favorite poems. "round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away." And it's exactly the rhythm that makes this for me. Thanks for sharing!!

Christina Lee said...

Must be why I love poems so much! I also own that book--good stuff in it!

Lydia Kang said...

Wonderful poem. I haven't read it before, so thanks for posting it!

Mia Hayson said...

Great poem :)

I never really realised how important rhythm really is until I read Kafka's "Auf Der Galerie" and it all clicked.

Can't wait for the rest! ;)

Creepy Query Girl said...

Yes, I agree the flow of that poem is immaculate. Thanks for sharing!

MBW aka Olleymae said...

That is a very cool poem and it has a cool, kinda offbeat rhythm. (at least in my head.)

It's weird bc I just read a YA book (I can't remember which one--bad, I know)that references this poem!!

Old Kitty said...

I never really saw the connection between poetry and fiction writing but ever since my writing course just finished I am not only convinced that the study if not the appreciation of poetry is essential for fiction writing. You've made a wonderful succint correlation between the two. I would add just the love of words used musically - used sparingly - used poetically - adds to fiction writing like no other.

take care

Tahereh said...

another excellent post, matthew! you bring up such great points!!

Jemi Fraser said...

I read my stuff out loud to see how it sounds. I hear rhythms when I read silently, but it's much more obvious where the lack is when I read aloud.

Great points! :)

Bryan Russell said...

Thanks for the shoutout!

I really like this post, and oh yeah, I'm all about the musicality of prose. It's funny, I was just writing on Nathan's blog about how one of my favourite writing sayings was by the great Virginia Woolf, who said (in poor paraphrase here): Once I figured out that it was all about rhythm, everything else came easy.

It's all about the rhythm and flow.

Though, I must admit, I've never read the Lukeman book. I keep hoping I'll stumble across it in a used bookstore, but no such luck so far.

SlipOn said...