On the Music of Prose
Gulf Coast Online Editor
Before I ever started writing, I was a musician. I started in the fifth grade, as soon as the option to learn an instrument became available at school, and I learned first (clumsily) on the snare drum that had once been a part of my father's drumset - he was a drummer too, and had been since long before I was born.
Throughout junior high and high school and later on at college and beyond, I played many of the whole range of instruments that fell under the umbrella classification of "percussion" - timpani, glockenspiel, piano, congas, vibraphone, quad tenors, and others, including a drumset that I still own. I played in the school marching and jazz bands, wind ensembles, and in a few rock bands - whatever I could find. On occasion, I even marched in pouring rain, my uniform soaked, a forty-pound snare drum strapped to my chest. My love of music was so strong that, as happens with so many drummers over time, it cost me some of the hearing in my left ear.
I still love music. I listen to it constantly. I'm more careful now about my hearing, and I hardly ever find the time to play these days, but for me, as a writer, a certain percussive legacy remains: I love the music of language.
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite novels, J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, and while I don't know if he was ever a musician, I get the feeling that he loves the music of language at least as much as I do. Take, for instance, a line from the final section of Chapter Seven in which the protagonist, David Lurie, is trying to sleep despite his daughter's dogs: "In the middle of the night, he is woken by a flurry of barking." A simple line, to be sure, and one clearly of prose - not of poetry. And yet the first clause (as common a clause as it may be) is entirely iambic, while the second begins iambically before devolving into the dactyl-trochee "flurry of barking." As a result, we not only learn from the content of the words that David's otherwise restful night has now been shattered - we actually feel that break in rhythm, too. It's a small jolt, yes, but a jolt nonetheless. And again, this is prose.
I could cite more examples from Coetzee or others here, but it suffices to say that music is important to prose. If you don't believe me, just read aloud the prose of Andre Dubus, Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, John Cheever, Salman Rushie, and, well, the list goes on.
By now, you may be thinking to yourself that I'm just preaching to the choir, that of course we all know that music is a part of writing. Indeed, I hope that you agree with me, but I also recall the words of one of my first writing instructors (whose name I won't mention here or anywhere) when she said to our class, "Only substance counts in fiction. Style might happen or it might not, but it doesn't really matter." And she was famous. I'm also a little dismayed by how many stories I read in current journals that seem to have thrown all care for the sound of the language to the side. Sometimes, in interviews, the writers of prose like that say that they are going for a sort of hyper-realistic version of human speech, as though our speech has no rhythms, as though the sounds of our voices talking might as well be those of the crushing of garbage, a random jumble of ugly noise.
Obviously, whether you're a part of the choir I'm preaching to or not, the notion exists among at least some in the writing world that the sound of prose is irrelevant, and while I could rant about this anti-musical attitude all day, I won't. I'll just encourage you, whoever you are, and whether you agree with me or not, to listen to the beauty of conversations around you, to the music of the world as it is already. Then, someday, in a quiet room, try reading an entire story or book aloud, especially if it's one that's filled with nice sounds. Slow down over the sentences. Listen to the rhythms, to the shapes the phrases make in the air. Perform them, and in so doing, be aware that you are breathing the same breaths as the author. That, too, will be music, for you will be singing the author's song.