Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Diction: Words, Words, Words Make Art and Music

Tis the season to wish for a few of my favorite things. It’s also the season to recall a few of those favorite things. Foremost among them, for me, is language used well.

1. There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.

I heard these words used to decline a second date with Jesse Stone, Robert B. Parker’s character in a series of police procedural mystery novels. In the film adaptations, Tom Selleck stars as Stone, a hard man to love because he finds it nearly impossible to love himself.

The expression, however, is attributed to a U. S. Senator from the 1960s. Senator Ernest F. Hollings represented South Carolina and seems to have been echoing pithy Southern sayings when he repeated the advice about mules.

Hollings and screenplay writers Tom Selleck and Michael Brandman applied good old country wisdom to new settings: a love interest and politics played at the national level. In both cases, the application delights because it’s a fresh way of saying: Second chance? Not a chance.


Photo of a mule by Al Griffin

2. Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return. --W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939

What goes around comes around.

We reap what we sow.

Overland Park Arboretum, Summer 2015
Photo by Al Griffin
Actions have consequences.

These are true statements, each a warning that could rein in our thoughtless deeds. Auden, however, adds more power to the warning. He reminds us that we are the arbiters of peace, justice, and good. We choose, and when we choose evil, we cannot expect good outcomes.

3. from The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes a chapter titled “A House of My Own” and describes it as “Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after. Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

Cisneros doesn’t follow rules. She writes fragments. A series of fragments. Shifting from what a house of my own is not to what a house of my own is without transitions. Making fine use of alliteration with five words beginning with “p.” Invoking the mind with books and stories, intimacy with shoes beside a bed, peace and quiet without a need to shake sticks, ease and comfort without garbage in need. Rhyming snow and go for emphasis. Opening infinite possibility with a blank sheet of paper destined for poetry. Packing so many senses in so few words. Moving from specific and concrete to abstract. Creating a memorable passage.

Photo by Al Griffin.
Cockrell Mercantile Fiesta House 2015
4. All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days nor in the life of this administration nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. -- John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

Master rhetoricians match phrases. They make good use of parallel phrasing to articulate their messages beautifully.

Reading Challenge:

Identify a passage wherein language has been used well.

Writing Challenge:


Rewrite a passage to use language well.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.