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Rhythms for Your Copy

Posted on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at 12:46 PM

Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.

By Peter P. Jacobi

As I write this column during the last days of May, I am still thinking about the death, just a few months ago, of Mary Oliver. The news made me sad. She was and remains a poet who moved me.

Literary judges awarded her a Pulitzer for one of her always remarkable collections, which she very much deserved. It wouldn't have been out of order to give her more than one such honor. Honors or not, what has mattered for me is how cogently and gently and yet dagger-smoothly she could verbalize thoughts that merely rumbled and bumbled and tumbled in a less focused mind like mine.

Bring the Unimaginable to Your Readers

As I read Mary Oliver's obituaries, I was reminded of one statement she penned that has resonated time and again: "Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable." The unimaginable. Cogent. Gentle. Dagger-smooth. Wide and vast. Limitless. What a magnificent word: unimaginable, and what sage advice it offers for an entire lifetime of living one's life, all embodied in a single word!

Not so strangely, that word, that thought, that wisdom, that belief, has reminded me of another comment that has resonated, this one by a bookseller, a comment about what Mary Oliver did and I have tried, not nearly so successfully by any estimation, to do. Mitchell Kaplan, who built the Books & Books stores empire, expressed this view: "To me, a writer was always the highest calling one could have."

I cannot dispute that designation for Mary Oliver. I cannot dispute that designation for other writers and for creators in the other arts as special as she, for that matter. They are capable of bringing the unimaginable to us, and the unbelievable, and the unexpected. They have found the pathway to our heart, the pathway to our soul, whatever and wherever it may be.

You, as editor, are urged not to forget that writing is, indeed, a calling of the highest order. Seek out that quality in your writers and encourage it. Seek out that quality when you are the writer, since most of you who read this publication are double-duty experts, at the least: "Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable."

It will make readers your friends. It will make your publication reader-friendly. That way, make editing a calling of the highest order, too (if you don't consider it such already).

Start with Rhythm

I came avcross a useful tidbit one day while listening to the radio, to a program of music by songsmith Cole Porter. A guest, someone who knew Porter and specializes in his music, was asked by the host to "explain what Cole was all about, what essences in his music made him special, different, stand out."

The guest, and I wish I could remember his identity, but I was driving and had just started to tune myself in to the program, responded: "Cole always started out with rhythm."

Rhythm, Hmmm

Usually, with makers of song, they either have a tune ready, to which they want to add the words, or they have words in their shirt pocket, to which they want to add music. (The latter is probably more common.) With Cole Porter, however, it was neither the words nor the music. It was rhythm. And most often, he took care of all three because, unlike most other members of his Broadway brood, he, the composer, usually also served as lyricist.

That little bit of information about rhythm wouldn't let me go. And as I listened to more of Porter's music on the show being broadcast, I began to realize what the guest expert had shared was right on. Those Porter songs gain their individuality from the way they move. The love songs. The satiric songs. The songs meant to be clever. The songs into which Porter poured melodies that he wanted us to remember immediately, never mind their content. Their rhythms differ. The way they move through time, in cadence or not, slow or fast, smooth or syncopated: Porter apparently made those choices before the rest of the work on a song was initiated.

Look up the lyrics to his song "You're the Top" from the musical Anything Goes. Pre these words and pre the jaunty melody, Porter firmly had in mind the rhythm for the music and the flavor and the pace and the mood. Verbal and musical content then came along.

Be Language-Appropriate

Well, you don't have to worry about music, although making the language musical isn't a bad idea, of course. You do have to concern yourself with the words and how they're chosen and how they're put together so that the end product serves the content in every possible way.

Consider a TV show, one on PBS involving a royal romance or what have you. Here, the camera will linger and the lighting will soften and the background music will enhance a moment of quiet passion. The scene will move slowly, taking its time.

Consider another TV show, one on a network or on cable involving guts and glory and the gory or what have you. Here, the camera will never pause. Shot will follow shot. The music will crash and scream. And the passion will seethe, the scene will move lightning quick, overwhelming time.

In a way, that's what you do with language. There are times when the words need to be reflective so an idea can linger and develop in longer sentences to create an atmosphere of calm, thereby allowing what is being written about to sink into the reader's mind.

There are times when the words need to be sharper, more angular, and the sentences shorter, even in fragments, to give the subject an active, frenzied atmosphere. The writing helps to paint that environment, into which the reader then can throw him- or herself for a very different experience.

Like Cole Porter with his song rhythms, so create rhythms for your copy. That begs for consideration ahead of words on paper. Remember the importance of being language-appropriate.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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