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
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 limerick. The common advice given in writing manuals to try reading your draft aloud (“Where you falter, alter”—Peggy Noonan) is very valuable.
We don’t pay enough attention to this stuff, I think. So it’s with relish that I fell on a new book by Cambridge English don Angela Leighton, Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature (Belknap Press). As Leighton writes: “It is now a commonplace to note that our main critical metaphors—vision, insight, image and imagination—are predominantly derived from the eye and that we lack the equivalents for what the ear can do.”
She sets about trying to redress that in a learned, if sometimes densely theoretical, tour of what’s been said about the ear in literature by writers, poets, critics and philosophers. But the best are Leighton’s deft close readings—noting the hesitation in Walter de la Mare’s “Some One,” the subtle aural effects of Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” or the way the chiasmic cadences of the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” (“falling softly” “softly falling” “falling faintly” “faintly falling”) carry the story “into the lyrical no-time of snowfalls everywhere.”
She draws sprightly lines between Milton and Tennyson and Tennyson and Empson; hears birdsong in Hardy, de la Mare and Edward Thomas; brings in Frank Kermode to elucidate the way the “clock’s tick-tock” can be “a model for plot in fiction” as well as for the old metronomic tick-tock of metre in verse.
Is all this just academic pettifogging? It is not. It’s merely to seek to bring to consciousness something that works powerfully on the unconscious. Understanding the rules of perspective enriches your understanding of Renaissance art; and understanding the role of sound helps you get at how a poem or piece of prose manages your aesthetic response.
“Page poetry” and “spoken word” don’t occupy different territories. Leighton quotes Robert Frost noting that though the word “Oh” looks like one thing to the eye on the page, “‘Oh’ may be as long as prolonged agony or short as slight surprise.”
The book is a wise, suggestive reminder to readers to keep an eye on the ear. Leighton quotes a 1926 letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West that I hadn’t seen before. “Style is a very simple matter,” wrote Woolf. “It is all rhythm.”