Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Sound and Rhythm of Words: “Dancers” by Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the U. S. 2006-2007

Words matter, I repeat. The sounds of them. The pace of them in strings. “Dancers” by Donald Hall illustrates both the delightful sound and rhythms of language.


Bowing he asks her the favor;
Blushing she answers she will;
Waltzing they turn through the ballroom
Swift in their skill.

Blinder than buffers of autumn,
Deaf but to music’s delight,
They dance like the puppets of music
All through the night.

Out of the ball they come dancing
And into the marketing day,
Waltzing through ignorant traffic,
Bound to be gay.

They slacken and stoop, they are tired,
They walk in a weather of pain;
Now wrinkles dig into their faces,
Harsh as the rain.

They walk by identical houses
And enter the one that they know.
They are old, and their children like houses
Stand in a row.

Hall, Donald. White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Donald Hall Selected Poems 1946-2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 12-13.

Read the poem once--quickly, silently. Now read the poem once more, this time aloud. Pause. Reflect. Read it aloud again.

Notice how the words lift and soar at the beginning. Notice how brisk the pace.

Notice how gravity seems to draw the poem back to earth, beginning with the words, “They slacken and stoop, they are tired.” The pace slows then.

How does the poet achieve this change in the weight of words and their rhythm? By choosing the best, most appropriate words and by ordering them in the best, most appropriate ways. No other answer will serve for the poet keeps steady the syllable count throughout the poem. Each of the first three lines in each quatrain averages 8 syllables in an iambic pattern. The last line of each quatrain is spondaic.

So the tones of discovery and coming together in lines 1-12 must be attributable to the words themselves. They are alliterative, a rhetorical device by which words speak to words as do Bowing, Blushing, ballroom, Blinder, and buffers or Deaf, delight, dance, and dancing. The initial letter repeated emphasizes the words, giving them extra significance in our minds as we read them, through our voice as we speak them.

The alliterative words also bounce and tumble because they are short-stopped consonant sounds. Both B and D are abrupt whereas slacken and stoop from line 13 hisses and stretches. There is nothing brisk about them. They are words of burden, requiring us to read them and speak them with a slower pace. Adding slacken and stoop to the abundant th sounds in lines 13-20 echoes the heavy weight of tired steps taken by two who’ve exchanged the dance floor for the market and children.

The juxtaposition of words enhances the effect. The dancers were once swift (4), but they now walk in a weather of pain (14) or stand (20). Their faces were once pleading as he asks her the favor (1) and she, blushing (2), answers “yes.” Now their faces are wrinkled (15), harsh (16), old (20).

Words matter. Their placement matters. Their juxtaposition matters. Poetry is simply diction well placed.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Dancers” at least three times, once silently and twice aloud. Then read the post about “Dancers” by Donald Hall. Finally, read “Dancers” again, this time with a love for the words and their order.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a passage from your own writing that can be transformed into music by choosing other words and reordering the whole.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Allusions in BrainDead, a CBS Summer Treat

BrainDead is a summer entry for CBS. Part science fiction specializing in alien conquerors and part satire skewering the current divisive rhetoric heard from both sides of the aisle, BrainDead is a hoot. The series also snaps, crackles, and pops with allusions, those handy rhetorical devices that stitch a rich tapestry of background and detail in a single word or two.

Allusions are a short of shortcut to deeper meanings and references. For example, a liberal seeking help from the protagonist, Laurel Healy, approaches her with an ominous kitchen knife. When she’s frightened, he dismisses it as an instrument meant to harm by crying, “It’s from The Splendid Table,” a radio program about food and wine often heard on public stations--those media outlets with NPR programming often accessed by progressive and Democrats. The first layer of the joke is that the man is clueless about being threatening. The second layer of the joke is that a knife from The Splendid Table store wouldn’t figure in a crime. 

Those who’ve been infected by the alien ants speak other contemporary catch-phrases such as all lives matter, an allusion to groups opposed to consciousness-raising conversations resulting from the Black Lives Matter movement as if the two movements are somehow mutually exclusive. A minority asserts its right to live and live free of danger disproportionate to the majority while the majority feels threatened by the assertion and fights for its supremacy. This allusion represents the other side of the aisle known as conservatives who, in BrainDead, are busy shutting down the government, still one more allusion to the political divide affecting America this summer.

The joke is that balanced and/or nuanced arguments once voiced by some become unbalanced, either-or arguments once the ants have done their work on the human brain. Independents and liberals become evangelical conservatives overnight after the ants have done their work, suggesting the current political divide is the result of an insect apocalypse. And that’s pretty funny.

Reading Challenge:

Read BrainDead on CBS, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. CST.

Writing Challenge:

While watching BrainDead, make a list of allusions that characterize a character as left or right, two more words denoting liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, progressive or regressive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Verisimilitude: Writing Truth is Hard Work

To most people, it would not seem like much of a job, hunched over a typewriter late at night, writing . . . . To me, it was a blessing . . . . In time, it dawned on me that I lingered over that old typewriter longer than was healthy for an eighteen-year-old boy, that I lingered over sentences, searching my mind for the images and details that could make those disjointed words from the faded typewriter ribbon take on color and life.--Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’. New York: Vintage, 1997. 122.

What a simple, perfect way to describe a characteristic of literature: verisimilitude. Whether fiction or nonfiction, we look to writers to render truth in words, to give us the color of experience, and hold up a mirror to life itself.

What lonely labor.

What challenging work.

Transforming the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of a thing isn’t easy.

Search your minds for the images and details that make three dimensions from two.

Reading Challenge:

Read more about verisimilitude in Verisimilitude: Artistic Voyeurism.

Writing Challenge:

Observe closely a moment in time. Then render its truth in words. Rick Bragg began by writing about moments in sports. Choose a highlight from the game you know best and begin.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali. His Words Mattered as Much as His Deeds.

The last three posts have explained three ways in which words matter: 1) for poetic visions, 2) for emphasis, and 3) for art. Today’s choice for words matter illustrates each of these. Muhammad Ali used words to convey his vision, to emphasize his prowess, and to shape ideas.

How succinct a philosophy. How apt a description of what deters us from our dreams.

As children, we dream big dreams. We know little about the path, its smooth or rough nature, or about the hazards on our road. Some of us walk on, undeterred by pebbles, rocks, or boulders. Others of us turn back in search of an easier path when the pebbles are too sharp, too common. Ali knows the pebbles--the obstacles, hurdles, and challenges--wear people down until they count themselves out.

Words give me the power to express my experience. They clarify and solidify my vision. We rely upon leaders and writers and philosophers to put into words the truth for our due deliberation.

Ali used his words similarly. He used them communicate his vision, and in many cases, his vision included intimidating opponents. In doing so, he also used them to shore up his own confidence and translate vision into actions.

Ali uses repetition effectively with the phrase “wars of” and the words “fought,” “change,” and “maps. In the first use, “change” is a verb, but in the second, a noun. The first use of “maps” is as a noun whereas the second use is as a verb. Such artful manipulation of words and parts of speech renders the idea more powerfully.

Words are as much a part of Ali’s legacy as his fights in the ring or with Parkinson’s.

Reading Challenge:

Read about Muhammad Ali.

Writing Challenge:

Using your own subject, imitate each of the three Ali quotations cited above. Take note of the sentence lengths, the parts of speech, and word choices.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach