Neuroscience tells us that even when reading silently, we use the parts of the brain associated with hearingby Sam Leith / May 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Poetry, according to one definition, is “memorable speech.” That may be my favourite definition—because it addresses the original orality of the form. Even in free verse, it’s the sound that does much, perhaps most, of the real work and no explication of symbol and metaphor captures how a poem works if it ignores that. It’s for that reason that James Fenton’s 2002 An Introduction To English Poetry—with its attention to prosody—seems to me one of the best available.
Prose may be “memorable speech” too. As I found when researching my recent book on style and usage, neuroscience tells us that even when reading silently, we use the parts of the brain associated with hearing. That affirmed my conviction that, though prose cadence—being harder to talk about analytically than poetry—is little discussed, what we think of as “good writing” almost always seems so because it sounds right.
Certain instances come to mind. I remember as an undergraduate noticing that in Marvell’s “The Garden” (“Annihilating all that’s made, / To a green thought in a green shade”) the whole poem, mimetically, stops because into its pentameters intrude two phrases, “green thought” and “green shade,” that can’t but be pronounced as spondees. Or, think of Auden (source of the “memorable speech” line): the way that the opening of “Look, stranger” winds into the ear just like its subject; or the way that “Funeral Blues” collapses into prose in its last line.
Or, in prose cadence, the way that the first line of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) is an iambic pentameter; or that the last line of Middlemarch (“and rest in unvisited tombs”) scans like a…