Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Sound of Sense

Where do ideas come from? What are the sources of imagination? We have our senses, and our memories; we can assemble and recall information, and reconstruct it in countless ways.

Still, these are not the primary sources of ideas for the poet. Language itself can generate ideas. Writing, as a physical and emotional act, draws forth what it is we want to say – quite often, before we know consciously.

Language is sensual; language is historical; language is animated. It is in us, but we call our first language our “mother” tongue – it gave birth to us, or we came from it.

A poet, or an artist who works in language, more generally, is someone keenly aware of the living qualities of language. Sense and nonsense share a shifting boundary; thought and sound connect across it.

We are all to some extent aware of the physicality of language: we love rhymes, jokes, figures of speech, baby-talk, jingles, and other forms that emphasize that physicality. But a poet seeks after it, and trains his or her ear (and tongue, and eye, and hand) to capitalize on it.

Robert Frost spoke of something he called “the sound of sense.” The most remarkable aspect of this – something which I think songwriters will understand – is that music often comes before the words themselves to a poet like Frost. Here is how he describes it in a letter he wrote:


(From a Letter to John Bartlett, 4 July 1913) (...) I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see the great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track. They went the length of it. Any one else who goes that way must go after them. And that’s where most are going. I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:

You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.


He says it’s too late.
Oh, say!
Damn an Ingersoll watch anyway.


No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track.

Those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence. The simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement is one sound. But Lord love ye it mustn’t be worked to death. It is against the law of nature that whole poems should be written in it. If they are written they won’t be read. The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound--pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.


I like the idea that much meaning is carried in tone; and that one can hear voices as if on the other side of a door, missing the precise words, but getting, through intonation, stress, and to some extent coloration, some essential meaning of the words.

I want to relate this concept of Frost’s to another, more broadly linguistic concept, sometimes known as “sound symbolism” or “phonetic symbolism. The basic idea is that the sounds of words, the vowels and consonants in particular, and the patterns they create, are not random, but are rather connected to the meanings of words. This is a controversial idea, because most linguistics stems from the notion that the relation between sound and sense is arbitrary. And one must wonder how it is that so many languages – thousands of languages, existing and extinct – have connected so many different sound patterns to the same basic ideas. But I have the sense, as I think most poets do, that at least in its traces, language as we understand it today owes much to the ways in which sounds were created by the body, or the way experience affected particular human beings, such that a particular sound came to be associated with a particular meaning; no doubt many time, in different ways, leading to different primeval languages, of which our modern languages are distant descendants, much changed; and the physical connections are now often abstracted, transformed, fossilized, and mostly unrecognizable. Something similar is true for the beginnings of written language, as well – but many thousands of years after the start of spoken language.

So, the poet is an archeologist, or an atavistic creature, or a prophet (if our end is in our beginning). She tries to connect the present and future of language with its past, although its most distant past is occluded.

It is useful, in training your ear as a poet or writer, to study the etymologies of words; not only for the shifting forms and meanings, but to discover the way certain forms stay the same as we go back in time, and to discover the similarities as we cross language boundaries (in particular, in the Indo-European family of languages).

To explore some of this further, I recommend:

…which offers Frost himself reading his “sound of sense” argument;

…which offers some very useful classifications of sound devices as related to various poems of Frost;

…which offers some thoughtful discussion by Carol Frost (no relation) on Frost’s poetics;

...which offers some useful information on sound symbolism.

Also, here is a children’s picture book I wrote, based on some of the concepts of sound symbolism:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some Notes on Fiction

What is a story?

Let me start with a famous distinction made by the writer E. M. Forster in his classic work, Aspects of the Novel. Story is like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died.” Plot is more like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.”

What’s the difference? Story, in Forster’s definition, is a series of events; plot is a series of events that indicate causation. When we hear story, Forster, observes, we think “and then what next?” but when we experience plot, we ask, “and why?”

This is what I call operational definition: a definition to suit a particular situation, need, or argument. “Plot” and “story” can mean more or less the same thing, but even if you don’t like Forster’s distinction, consider the problem of causation: how, in a story, can you get at meaning; at the possibilities of “why”?

Here is another point about how “story” and “plot” differ – and this, really, was more what Forster was concerned with: “story” is the basic chronology of events: how things unfold in time. “Plot” is any meaningful (or, I suppose, meaningless) arrangement of those events. So, when you tell a story, you can go forward in time, first to second to third to last; or, you can choose another arrangement – one that suits some thematic purpose, or any purpose at all. Stories (as in the movie “Memento”) can be told backwards; or (like the movie “Pulp Fiction”) they can be told both forwards and backwards, leaving us somewhere in the middle. Often, a story starts “in medias res” (“in the middle of things,” a Latin phrase I’ve used in posts), because that is where our attention can be most successfully engaged; often, then, a story will back up, or otherwise fill in information, or provide some exposition, to give the reader sufficient background and context for the story and its characters, and their situations.

But there are many possibilities. Time can be directed, replayed, skipped, and multi-layered. Think of the Akutagawa story (the basis for “Rashomon,” one of our first exercises): the same story is told several different ways, according to the different characters’ points of view, and their differing motivations/limitations. Many stories, especially films and novels, will present a scene in one place, according to one character’s point of view; and then jump to a different character/location to show us simultaneous or coterminous events, often linking the two plot lines later in the story.

Also, plot elements can be nested: we can go back in time, or forward, and then, within that secondary chronology, we might be pushed further back or forward. A good example of this is in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

This story begins with the narrating character learning of his younger brother’s arrest for drug possession; from this point, we go a little forward, partly to gain some further understanding of our narrator’s perspective; then we go back, to learn of the brothers’ shared past, and within a dramatic framework, we go further still, through a story told by the mother (long dead in the story’s present) of their father’s childhood, and a dark event that shaped his destiny – his, and his own brother’s (creating a parallel, of course, with the narrator and his brother’s destinies). We also have the narrator’s memory-scenes that present us with an idyllic past, when both mother and father were alive, and the family was in equilibrium (but with a threatening darkness not far off).

So, we have story within story, and in a sense, our questions “why?” – why does Sonny, the younger brother, have a drug problem; why should we care about him; why does the narrator, the older brother, feel regret – are suspended, amplified, and (perhaps) internalized: the characters’ investments in one another become our own, in part, I feel, because we enter their story (their plot, really) as if it were a labyrinth of meaning, leading not out but toward a center as the point of liberation.

Consider, then: when you have a story to tell, how should you construct the plot? Is chronological order the best way? Even if so, will foreshadowing or flashbacks enhance your purposes? Is there a point in the midst of events from which you can work back, then forward, to catch the reader’s attention? Are there simultaneous perspectives to alternate between?

The most important thing, I believe, is to think in terms of scenes: how can you help the reader “see” what is happening? Create a series of self-contained, extended moments: what action, what realization, what gesture, what knowledge will give that moment its purpose within the story? What mode of storytelling will predominate: dialogue, narrative, description, interior monologue?

My preference, even in essays and poems, is to think “cinematically,” at least at some stage of the composition: to imagine where the cameras would be placed; to design the tracking, the series of angles, to try out medium vs. close-up vs. long-shot distances; to imagine the montage of shots, considering both what is shown and what is omitted, and how the gaps communicate meaning; and to consider “mise en scene” (what is placed within the frame), also thinking of the relation between presence and absence, and how best to use what I expect a reader to know of what I don’t reveal.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Houston Poetry Festival

Click here to read about this week's Houston Poetry Festival: