Friday, 7 February 2014

We’ve got rhythm by Bill Kirton

When asked for advice about writing, one of the things I stress is that writers should read their work aloud. It reveals mistakes, repetitions, places where punctuation’s absent and should be present and vice versa, as well as things which just ‘don’t feel right’. It also makes you realise that your sentences are maybe all around the same length, so there’s a monotony about your delivery. Those are all obvious benefits but reading aloud also brings home the importance of rhythm. It’s an obvious element in poetry but it’s just as important in stories, novels or any other form of prose writing. As timing is to the sportsman or comedian, so rhythm is to the writer.

In more formal types of poetry, there are usually rules about where stresses should fall, Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is a typical iambic pentameter. Switch the stress to the second syllable and the iamb becomes a trochee, as in Longfellow’s:

‘By the shores of Gitche Gumee, 
By the shining Big-Sea-Water, 
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, 
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.’

Or my own comic masterpiece beginning:
‘I went down the pub on Friday.
It’s a nice pub, quiet, tidy.
Lovely barmaid. Well, she’s sweaty
So we call her Sweaty Betty.’

But you can mix them up and use subtler, more complicated metres, such as the famous anapaestic tetrameter of Byron’s:

‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.’

The point is that, in poetry and prose, rhythm gives you another string to your writing bow. If the rhythm’s not right, the words have less impact, you create an uneasiness, a sense of dissatisfaction. That’s fine if it’s deliberate but not if you’re unaware of it. Do it right and, as well as conveying your thinking and your effects through what the words mean, you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her with gentler cadences or unsettling stresses.

 I’m no theorist about all this but I think there must be an instinctive psychological response to rhythms at a level beyond the rational. For example, I don’t think it matters in the slightest if you don’t know the meaning of:
‘And I shall pluck ’til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’

The combination of images and rhythms there is enough to give you a feeling of wonder. But I’m not just referring to poetic resonances and high-flown imagery. In fact, what started me thinking yet again about this was the death of the great Elmore Leonard, whose rhythms, whether through the fractured dialogues of his characters or in the spare perfection of his own prose, were central to one’s enjoyment of reading him. The opening to his Tishomingo Blues is often quoted to illustrate his mastery:

‘Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’

It’s deceptively simple, flows off the tongue, conveys the necessary information, and has those binding little echoes in ‘fifty-cent’ and ‘eighty-foot’. The economy of characterisation in ‘girls who hung out at amusement parks’ and ‘put a cute look of pain on their faces’ is delightful (to me anyway), and the fluidity of that opening sentence is enhanced by its contrast with the brief, broken one that follows it. Leonard’s much-lauded ear for dialogue is just part of his sensitivity to the wider rhythms of language.

And how about this, from Out of the Deep by another Dennis, our own Dennis Hamley?  It’s the title story of the collection and part of its essence is an impulse which links music, painting, timelessness and a level of experience that’s beyond the rational:

‘The different melodies took on colours to him. The girls’ high voices were a bright gold: the girls’ lower notes were a warm red. The men’s high notes were a fierce sky blue: the bass voices a rich purple. The coloured ropes of sound twined round his brain until Colin Chiltern’s anthem heard from over the centuries turned into one of his own illuminations.’

I’ve taken the rest of my examples from poetic drama but that’s in order to emphasise that rhythm doesn’t just mean smooth, uninterrupted flows; it’s much more complex than that. Poetic rhythms have undoubted power. In Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, a courtier tells the king ‘Your majesty shall shortly have your wish, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.’ To which the king replies ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis! Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles? Usumcasane and Theridamas, is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’ I’ve dispensed with the line breaks but that makes no difference to the impact. The rhythms themselves seem noble, add resonance to the words.

But the important point is that it’s not just noble rhythms that work.

Othello, for example, was a great orator, with lines such as ‘Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife; the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’ But his self-assurance and conceit break down when Iago suggests that Desdemona’s playing away, and he loses control. ‘It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?—Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!’

So rhythm works not just through its own power and consistency but when it’s broken and overwhelmed. French classical drama was highly formal. It aimed to ape what it thought Greek tragedy was like, so it was written in Alexandrines – rhyming couplets of 12 syllables, with a caesura in the middle of each line and a sort of mini-caesura after the 3rd and 9th syllables. The example usually quoted of the form at its best is one of Racine’s. I’ll mark the caesuras with /:

Arian/e, ma soeur,// de quel am/our blessée
Vous mourût/es aux bords //où vous fût/es laissée.
(Literally and loosely translated: ‘Ariadne, my sister, wounded by love, you died on the shore on which you were abandoned’. My apologies for a translation which is an example of very bad rhythm, completely unsuited to what’s being expressed.)

As well as being great poetry, this formal structure, including the rhyme scheme, has a specific function; it marks the pre-eminence of those speaking the words. All the main characters in classical tragedy are high-born – kings, princesses, generals, etc.. They have dignity, poise, and their control of language is a mark of their superiority, elegance and social standing. If you like, it’s another of the masks they wear. So when they seem to stumble over syllables, we know the ordinary mortal under the mask is having trouble suppressing baser instincts or just plain human emotions.

My favourite Racine play is Andromaque and there’s a great example there of how rhythm does the dramatist’s work for him. The plot is complicated but essentially it’s Oreste loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque, who still loves her dead husband. So, not much chance of a happy ending.

At one point, Hermione makes a long passionate speech outlining how Pyrrhus’s rejection of her has brought shame on her family. She ends it by urging Oreste to go and assassinate her enemy and not come back until he’s ‘covered with the blood of the infidel’ (i.e. Pyrrhus). That’s how, she says, he can be sure of having her love.

So off he goes. When he sees her again, he makes a long, noble speech full of elevated imagery and awe at the enormity of events, declares his love for her and ends by saying that he’s killed Pyrrhus. She’s horrified at the news and immediately rejects him in a short speech where she barely maintains control of her temper (and the lines she speaks). It ends with the words ‘Qui te l’a dit?’ (Who told you to do that?) It’s a brusque, very ordinary, colloquial question with no thought of being noble. And, of course, it’s nowhere near being an Alexandrine. So it’s up to Oreste to finish the line with the correct number of syllables, provide the rhyme, and so on. But, of course, he’s completely shattered by her words, and the man who’s just made that great rolling speech, is reduced to near incoherence. The complete couplet goes as follows:

Hermione : Qui te l’a dit?
Oreste :                        ‘O dieux! Quoi! Ne m’avez-vous pas
Vous-meme, ici, tantot, ordonné son trépas?
(Who told you to do that?
                        Oh God! What! Didn’t you
Yourself, here, just now, order his death?’)

Compare those stuttering sounds and fractured sentences with the beautiful fluid couplet I quoted earlier. This one still rhymes, still has 2 lines of 12 syllables, but there’s no rhythm, no regular pauses, no flow. The words this time are simple, desperate attempts by the characters to make sense of things but the broken rhythms show the crumbling of their masks. The glorious noble exteriors fall away to reveal the lost, unhinged people inside them. Rhythm and control give way to chaos.

So, back to my point, the manipulation of prose rhythms is a part of the writer’s skill set that’s often overlooked. To finish, another example from one of our own. One of the pleasures of reading Catherine Czerkawska’s  The Curiosity Cabinet is the variations in rhythm she achieves as she switches between the story’s two threads. ‘I would not wish to leave this place,’ says the woman in one of them. ‘I would not wish to leave you… I think it would break my heart to leave you.’ And in the other, the man comes to his love’s room just to say, ‘Oh, my love, I could not go to sleep without a sight of your face’.


madwippitt said...

Loved those descriptions you used to illustrate your points ... cor, know when I'm outclassed, me. I'm back off to curl up with a cosy cliché ... ;-)

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely Bill! As a writer who is also a poet I think rhythm is a vital element to good writing. Not just each line, but each paragraph. I find it difficult to read books that don't have it. Like trying to sail on a choppy sea with the wind changing direction!

Sandra Horn said...

Brilliant post, Bill! Thank you!

Jan Needle said...

if my name were jan mark, not jan needle, i'd give that a proper response. as it ain't, i'll merely say (like the girls who hang around fairgrounds) Awesome!

Lydia Bennet said...

great post Bill, very important element of prose, and often forgotten in turgid self-indulgent 'lit fic' novels.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks all and Mad, it's horses for courses, innit? Some you win, some you lose, but no good crying over spilt milk, you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and ... er ...

Sara Bain said...

I remember studying Tennyson's Maud in sixth form (yes, I can still remember some things that far back, although it's mostly a blur) and trying to analyse his disjointed morbid metre. Fascinating subject. Your brilliant post has brought it all back. Thanks for that, Bill. Off to read the Dream of the Rood now ;)

Joan Fleming said...

Brilliant post, Bill. We sing from the same hymn book - wish I had your singing voice.

Bill Kirton said...

Oh yes, Sara, Tennyson.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs forever
Down to Camelot.
I loved that at school (and that was decades further back than yours). Strange how these things stay with us.

Joan, people might talk.

Dennis Hamley said...

Bill, what can I say? To be quoted as an example is for me wonderful so thank you so much (that was the second amazing thing today: I've just been sent an email from an educational publisher who is taking two of my stories for publication in September, so I'm maintaining my tiny toehold in the big world out there!) But this truly is a great, great post which expresses something which I don't just agree with - I see it as the life-blood of all writing, whether poetry, drama or prose (if we can even distinguish between them). My Spirit of the Place depends for its whole plot on a rhythmic defect in a poem: it's as serious as that.

Dennis Hamley said...

By the way, 'And ride in triumph through Persopilis' is a line - and whole passage where those amazing names so superbly ('Usumcasane') is a line which has haunted me ever since I first heard it in a radio production, it must be sixty years ago now.

Bill Kirton said...

Congrats on the stories, Dennis, and thanks for the comments. The weird thing is that 'how to write' books pay so little attention to rhythm, but if a writer doesn't have it, it definitely shows.

Reb MacRath said...

Bill, this is one of the finest posts I've seen so far here. And it's on a subject I've been thinking about for some time: not just varied sentence length but varied sentence structure--and varied sentence *beats*. Almost instinctively, writers--or their editors?--seem to have a sense of this imperative: I almost never find two consecutive sentences with the same syllable count. But whenever I start to get restless, I find too great a run of sentences structured in the same way. One example to add to your list above--a book I'm now fired up to read--is EB White's Charlotte's Web. This quote sparked my interest:'Written in White's dry, low-key manner, Charlotte's Web is considered a classic of children's literature, enjoyable to adults as well as children. The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is an often cited example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing.'

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Reb and, probably as you suspected, I'll be looking into Charlotte's Web myself. Great story but I've only ever seen it on stage.