Creative Rhythms

Literature is a fascinating medium because it manages to conjure up a variety of dynamic mental images in the reader’s mind. The right combination of words and sentence length makes for engaging reading, outside of the actual literary value of a piece. However, literary works are often read in silence, and the only voice that the reader hears is the voice inside his or her head. Sometimes written works work only if they’re just read in silence (often, sentences that either run on or are very clipped are uncomfortable to read, much less to listen to). Sometimes, though – and especially if the author has an ear for rhythm – written works sound better when they are read out loud.

Presenting two figures: T.S. Eliot and James Joyce – both writers of dense texts, both part of the modern British writer list, and both interesting writers in that they have something rather aural to offer.

Let me first show the opening lines of one of Eliot’s most famous poems, “The Waste Land:”

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

And from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (also infamous for being one of the most difficult texts in existence):

Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be me fear! Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling. Killykill-killy: a toll, a toll. What chance cuddleys, what cashels aired and ventilated! What bidimetoloves sinduced by what tegotetab-solvers! What true feeling for their’s hayair with what strawng voice of false jiccup! O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement!

– James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Poetry has the quality of sounding beautiful when read out loud, and prose as well, as evidenced by a brief passage from Joyce (regrettably, it does not make much sense, if at all). Here, then, is what I’m getting at: as a unique sort of exercise, instead of writing for substance, depth, or anything that is considered a standard purpose in writing, why not write for rhythm and musicality? It’s certainly something that not a lot of people do, and something worth looking at. Creativity is not limited to the words pinned down on paper (or word processor) – sometimes, words, and strings of them, live outside of the written body and in the air, in how they are spoken and how they sound. So we get back briefly to both Eliot and Joyce. Personally, I see substance from Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but also musicality and rhythm. Joyce’s Wake is certainly difficult, and intimidating when one looks at it, but it has quite an enjoyable ring when read out loud, despite the passage not making much sense.

Writing for rhythm is worth trying, and may open up new doors for the writer, who might find that simply writing for the silent voice may feel stagnant. If, as well, you manage to strike a balance between writing and speech, then all the better. It’s a skill that may prove to be useful, and if ever you manage to get your own piece picked for live reading, then perhaps the audience may derive more enjoyment from it for its being musical.

Some Links:

Hear “The Waste Land” being read out loud by Fiona Shaw, and by Eliot himself, to see for yourself how different people negotiate with the poem in terms of live reading.

Also, you might want to read up on phonocentrismwhich has something to do with this post.

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Creative Confusion

It may not seem like it, but I’m majoring in Anglo-American literature, and have had my fair share of texts that drive people crazy – both the kind read for class, and the kind read for “fun.”

Among the things we’ve taken for class are T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses – both utterly frustrating in the profusion of references and the extensive notes that come with both texts. And of course, I spent part of my downtime reading some more, and have subjected myself to pieces like Thomas Pynchon’s incredibly huge, dense, and frustratingly epic piece, Against the Day. 

For all texts, especially for the classroom-standard literary ones, there is a nagging feeling that you’re supposed to understand them, especially given my position. But the struggle to grasp these texts, not in bits and pieces, but in chunks or as a whole, is real and terrifying. It’s as if the authors deliberately packed in so much to talk and think about, and so much to interpret, that it’s impossible to read something like Ulysses comfortably and happily.

Which brings me to my point. A profusion of information and references would be fun if the reader can get it from the start. It’s not fun if it’s too much to digest – though in Against the Day, the sheer weight of what’s happening in the book, and the many threads that run through the narrative, seem to be deliberate choices by the author. A profusion of information and references would be fun for the author because it is a way to demonstrate the vast range of the author’s knowledge. Anyone would jump on the chance of looking smart if they were given in.

But a little reminder: you’re not Joyce. Certainly, you’re not Eliot. And while confusion may be a useful thing when it comes to writing – certainly, it adds a layer of mystique and extra mental legwork – it is not entirely advisable, because of a few good reasons:

  1. It’s hard to pull off. Extremely. The problem will be the toning down of your creative process, having to lift voices from everywhere, parroting things here and there in order to fit the narrative. Or, perhaps, with the immense number of things going on in the piece, you yourself as a writer will have to keep everything that’s happening fresh and interesting all throughout. It’s like juggling a thousand things at a time.
  2. It’s hard to read. Perhaps it’s just frustration coming off from having to read the text within a short time frame, but I found that even just reading Ulysses in chunks is difficult, what with the desperate struggle to grasp the meaning of every line, to sift through the many voices that assail you.

As personal as this post may sound like, I hope I’m giving off valuable information. The act of writing is wonderful, unless you, yourself, are not having fun with it. Having to struggle with a lot of narrative threads at a time can be taxing for both the reader and the writer, and making sense of what you’re writing will force you down certain roads that will adversely affect your writing and your creative flow. Take one or two neat narrative threads at a time, and don’t be too convoluted. It’s likely that your intent and your story will shine through easily with something smaller to juggle with.

Unless:

Unless it is a deliberate choice of yours. My professor linked the entire class to an article on Ulysses, titled Ulysses in Perpetuityby Dustin Illingworth. In part, it quotes Joyce, who claims to have deliberately inserted a lot of enigmatic statements within the text to keep people occupied forever. It’s frustrating but clever.

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