Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Lesson in Fluency from Alexander Pope (re-post)

D.L. Hammons is recycling blogposts right now. Check it out here. I included a different post at DL's, but it got me thinking. This is another of my favorite posts and one I thought was worthy of a little recycling. I hope you enjoy it!

Sorry: longer than normal post


One of my favorite writing lessons actually comes from a poem. Alexander Pope, in his poem "Sound and Sense", offers insight and instruction for better writing. It is some of the best and toughest writing advice I've ever discovered. In it, he begins by reminding us that writing is a skill, one requiring learning and practice - truly great writing is not accidental. But he takes it even further, which I love.

Pope asserts that the best writing is accomplished when we are able to echo our content's meaning in the sound and quality of our words.

For example, if our MC is struggling with a mighty task, the reading should require more effort as well:

"But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar."


OR

"When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;"
Pay attention to the effort required by your mouth and tongue to speak those lines. Try to say them quickly, without dropping any letter sounds. They MUST be read slowly. His letter and syllable combinations require more effort, resulting in slower pronunciation.

But if things are moving along smoothly and life is wonderful, Pope says our writing fluency should also flow smoothly and easily:
"Soft is the strain, when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;"

OR

"Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn and skims along the main.

Now pay attention to the effort required to speak those lines. Try to say them quickly. No problem, right? Genius!

What impresses me most about Pope's message is not the value of his lesson (which I find priceless). I am most impressed by the way he manages to not only teach us what we should do, but also show us what he means, simultaneously. It blows. my. mind.

To actually apply the skills Pope shows us is far easier said than done. Specificity of word choice and a deliberate awareness of rhythmic fluency are required. Both take time and practice. The payoff in our craft, however, could not be measured.

A modern example can be found in the first few pages of What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman. She uses fluency and words to create a powerful feeling of anxiety in the reader, one so strong we can't help but turn the page. William Steig does it in his picture book Shrek, to both advance and slow the reader. I've discovered this technique in many books, and I am awed by it every time.

For your edification and reading pleasure, here is the complete poem:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!


What do you think? Can you think of any examples when you may have seen this technique?

13 comments:

Patti Lacy said...

I TOTALLY AGREE with Pope...and you, I guess!

LAUGHING at your warning about the long post!!!
You are sooo great!!!

Hmmmm. About every writer I love uses this technique. Pace to match the action, mindset.

One that comes to mind is Kim Edwards in "The Memory Keeper's Daughter."
Tosca Lee in "Demon."

Oh. That's two.
Sigh. I am SO bad at math.


Check 'em out!!!!

Elle Strauss said...

You always have such interesting posts, Shannon. I'll need another coffee before I can wrap my head around this one!

Elle Strauss

KarenG said...

Well worth repeating, this post! And I wasn't following you back then so it's new to me. Brilliant.

Kenda said...

Very interesting--thanks for reposting this! Something to give more thought to, wow...

Francine said...

Hi,

I've never thought about recycling posts, and have to say I enjoyed reading this one!

Must confess though to browsing posts when I first visit a blog - born inquisitive I guess, and I always check out profiles.

best
F

Theresa Milstein said...

Such powerful prose. It makes me realize how much more I have to learn and how much more I need to write.

DL Hammons said...

Thanks for the shout out. :) And this was another excellent post which also deserved to be recycled!!

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

New to me too! I have a tendency to use too many choppy words because I love they add increasing the pacing (but not every scene needs to be quick!)

TerryLynnJohnson said...

another thought-provoking post. Indeed long, but good reading!

Candice said...

I so agree with this. I think word choice, pacing, even word length affect our writing.

Jennie Englund said...

Sometimes when I'm reading my stuff at writing group, I get all stuttery and spitty and stuck.

And I start giggling because it sounds SO bad! And I know I have to go home and fix it.

Tahereh said...

what an excellent post -- it's these details we need to pay more attention to!

thanks for sharing, love! :D

Lynda Young said...

These are great exampls and display well the song of words

Lyn
W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

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