I hate this quote from Janet Burroway: “Novelists and short-story writers are not under the same obligation as poets to reinforce sense with sound.” I don’t think she understands what Andy Devine does: “Words have acoustical qualities that resonate with being human.”
Fiction begins with language, which is an acoustical occasion. The fiction writer who writes with acoustics uses a kind of close attention. It’s looking hard at the sentence until it opens up. It’s feeling around between words until you find spaces that require new words, new beats. It’s beyond semantics (though it still depends on sense). It’s recognizing the recurring sounds and using them to rewrite a sentence. Maybe the first word in the sentence has a long-o sound in it and the sentence will feel finished if it ends with another word with another long-o sound in it, say, smoke. Maybe the fact that that sentence ends with a hard-k leads to the next sentence beginning with another hard-k sound, so the consonants run together and there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way that feels thrilling and there’s a fire and that story never would have happened if the fiction writer weren’t working with the acoustics. Working with acoustics, it’s a different way to find the right word, or the right place for the right word. It’s a different way to write or revise a sentence or a group of sentences. I like the compositional nature of it.
The fiction can sound however you want it to sound, but it’s figuring out what those things are for you, or for the piece you’re working on, and then using those sounds to make something happen in the fiction, even if it’s something that the reader only feels and doesn’t quite know why. I know writers who are partial to glottal stops and other percussive consonants. I know writers who like the liquid consonants and sibilance. And I know one very particular writer who tries to remove all of these acoustical relations, so that no single sentence is repeating any particular sound. I used to focus on assonantial relations within sentences, but now I’m more often looking for them from one sentence to another sentence, a way to get from one sentence to another sentence.
2. Michael Kimball interviews Dawn Raffel.
3. Talkshows used to be rad [via David Peak]
My week, but maybe you’ll relate.
Assigning Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is really the best thing you can do for anybody.
“Fox and Whale, Priest and Angel,” by Russell Banks is travel writing, but it’s also about vision. So is nearly every travel piece I love. They all find the spark in a landscape and look into it and worship it—especially if the spark has been induced by altitude sickness (Banks) or nostalgia and maybe mushrooms (Jason Wilson, “Whistling at the Northern Lights”).
I learned this week that CK Williams does a better job of translating Francis Ponge than the translations I’m reading in Models of the Universe when a student brought me Francis Ponge: Selected Poems. That Ponge is masterful at conflating disparate objects. That you can make opening a door sexy if you’re Francis Ponge. I learned the definition of peduncle from the not-so-good translation of Ponge’s poem, “The Candle.” I learned that Ponge wasn’t interested in titles so much. And that maybe I’m having a love affair with the prose poem.
I read and discussed poems from Kathleen Ossip’s The Search Engine with a very cool student. I learned that the only thing more depressing than a Plath poem, is a cento of lines by Plath and Sexton. I remembered how much I love Plath. Thanks, Ms. Ossip. And thanks for these lines, among others:
I’m eating bread and water
alone, naked as the day
I was born. Hey, Ma,
I say, though she’s not
around, you won’t believe this.
Physicists say that in
addition to a yes and a
no, the universe contains a maybe.
Off in the distance, under the stars,
she moves like a platypus,
neither here nor there.
I read In The Year of Long Division by Dawn Raffel because Alec Niedenthal told me to. He and I will argue about this book soon enough. I’ll report back. But I learned that I like my dialogue to say something. And I remembered how important titles are.
Other very important things I learned this week: I love copyediting; I want a pet crow; I can’t stop thinking about the first season of Friday Night Lights; and I’m pretty sure I believe in magic.