Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Assonance and Ruling Vowels and Stuff

Gary Lutz has been a favorite writer of mine for years. In rereading an old Believer story by him, I'm loving how he addresses prose writing in a way conventionally reserved for poetics. (Not that there isn't at times/shouldn't be considerable overlap.) For instance--

Some ... writers seem to know that it takes more than that for a sentence to cohere and flourish as a work of art. They seem to know that the words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together—as if their separation from each other would deprive the parent story or novel, as well as the readerly world, of something life-bearing and essential. These writers recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. A pausing, enraptured reader should be able to look deeply into the sentence and discern among the words all of the traits and characteristics they share. The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.


In her story “The Blood Jet,” Schutt ends a sentence about “life after a certain age” by describing it capsularly as “acutely felt, clearly flat”—two pairs of words in which an adverb precedes an adjective. The adjectives (felt and flat) are both monosyllabic, they are both four letters in length, and they both share the same consonantal casing: they begin with a tentative-sounding, deflating f and end with the abrupt t. In between the two ends of each adjective, Schutt retains the l, though it slides one space backward in the second adjective; and for the interior vowel, she moves downward from a short e to a short a. The predecessive adverbs acutely and clearly share the k-sounding c, and both words are constituted of virtually the same letters, except that clearly doesn’t retain the t of acutely. The four-word phrase has a resigned and final sound to it; there is more than a little agony in how, with just two little adjustments, felt has been diminished and transmogrified into flat, in how the richness of receptivity summed up in felt has been leveled into the thudding spiritlessness of flat. All of this emotion has been delivered by the most ordinary of words—nothing dredged up from a thesaurus. But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase “clearly flat” that wasn’t already physically present in “acutely felt”; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase. There isn’t, of course, an exact, anagrammatic correspondence between the two pairs of words; the u of the first pair, after all, hasn’t been carried over into the second pair. (Schutt isn’t stooping to recreational word games here.) But the page-hugging, rather than page-turning, reader—the very reader whom a writer such as Schutt enthralls—cannot help noticing that the second phrase is a selective rearrangement, a selective redisposition, of the first one—a declension, really, as if, within the verbal environment of the story, there were no other direction for the letters in the first pair of words to go. There is nothing random about what has happened here. Schutt’s phrase has achieved the condition that Susan Sontag, in her essay about the prose of poets, called “lexical inevitability.”


A sentence that I have spent an almost pathological amount of time gaping at since the turn of the century, a sentence that always leaves me agog, is the opening sentence in Sam Lipsyte’s story “I’m Slavering,” in Venus Drive: “Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back.” The paraphrasal content of the statement informs us that high hopes for a return to a previous wealth of life or feeling are inevitably going to have to be scaled back and revised immediately and unconsolingly downward. If you tweak the verb tense from the past to the present, the sentence is even more self-containedly epigrammatic in its encompassing of our shared predicament of disappointments. It’s a richly summational sentence, not the sort of sentence you might expect to find at the very outset of a story—but there are writers whose mission is sometimes to deliver us from conclusion to conclusion instead of necessarily bogging us down in the facts, the data, the sorry particulars leading to each conclusion.

Lipsyte’s sentence is composed of words that, in ordinary hands, are among the most humdrum and pedestrian in our language: in the first half of the sentence alone, the words filling the subject slots in the independent clause and in the infinitive clause are the bland, heavily used indefinite pronouns everybody and everything. And the entire sentence is in fact completely lacking in specificity and so-called literary or elevated language: there is no load of detail, no verbal knickknackery whatsoever—there are no big-ticket words. The only standout word, the participle gleaming, most likely was called up into the sentence out of bits and pieces of the words preceding it—the ruling vowel of the entire utterance (the long e) and the -ing of everything. Yet this opening flourish of the story not only has both sweep and circumference in its stated meaning, but it has a swing and a lilt to it as well. The first half of the sentence is buoyant, upfloating. The entire sentence has the chiming, soaring, C-chord long e’s in everybody and be and gleaming and maybe and evening; it has the alliterative ballast of the b’s in everybody and be and maybe and back, and of the g’s in gleaming and again; and the only really closed word in the mix is the final word, the adverb back, which is shut off with harsh consonants at either end, especially the cruelly abrupt, terminal k, which finishes off the sentence and pushes it rudely down to earth. The last vowel in the sentence is the minor-key short a in back—the only appearance in the sentence of the disappointed, dejected ahhh of crap and alas.


Some of the most obvious ways to ensure that the words in a sentence together create a community of sound and shape are too rarely discussed explicitly outside of, say, high-school creative-writing classes. Yet many great writers constantly avail themselves of these little tactics to give their phrasing both dash and finish. The result is often a sentence that looks and sounds fulfilled, permanent. These phrasal maneuvers are concertedly evident in the examples I cited earlier, but they are worth considering individually, because even though we are all well acquainted with every one of them, we too easily forget just how much they can do for us.

For starters, make sure that the stressed syllables in a sentence outnumber the unstressed syllables. The fewer unstressed syllables there are, the more sonic impact the sentence will have, as in Don DeLillo’s sentence “He did not direct a remark that was hard and sharp.” You can take this stratagem to breathtaking extremes, as Christine Schutt does in her sentence “None of what kept time once works.” Schutt’s sentence should remind us as well that we need not shy away from composing an occasional sentence entirely of monosyllabic words, as Barry Hannah also does in “I roam in the past for my best mind” and “He’s been long on my list of shits in the world,” and as Ben Marcus does in “They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died.”

Those sentences illustrate another point: unless you have good reason not to do so, end your sentence with the wham and bang of a stressed syllable, as in Dawn Raffel’s sentence “She lived to marry late” and in John Ashbery’s “There was I: a stinking adult.” Such sentences stop on a dime instead of wavering forward for a wishy-washy further syllable or two.

Tonight while out I overhead a guy say "I like the sound of that," in response to the words of someone he was with, which were: "till four for sure." YES. (Right? Right!)

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