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Discovering the Music of Language, Part II

Posted on Saturday, August 28, 2021 at 11:01 PM

Consider writing and art for listening.

By Peter P. Jacobi

When Leonard Bernstein, in one of those remarkable public demonstrations of his, spoke of Beethoven and pointed to flaws in the composer's technique, he was making an argument for writing to be tested against the ears. Beethoven, said Bernstein, was not the most inspired melodist or proficient harmonist or sagacious contrapuntalist or talented orchestrator. But he knew, concluded Bernstein, he knew better than anyone in the history of western music, what the next note should be.

And that came from Beethoven's ability to listen. Now remember, fate dealt him a blow. He could not, later in his life, hear the actual sounds because of his deafness. But he had the ability to enunciate his music and somehow truly hear it so that the flow of notes -- the one-after-another of notes, as well as the coming-together-of notes -- was somehow perfect.

The writer needs to reach toward his own perfection, toward capturing the just-right next note, or word, and most of us have ears with which to hear.

Be the listener, first to what surrounds you and then to what springs from within you. Read aloud. Listen. Is there sense to what you've written? Is there flow? Is there a voice? Is there something that is distinctly yours?

Listen to the late Elie Wiesel. "Let us repeat it once again," he writes, concerned perhaps that we who read have not been listening. "Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to the creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently."

Those words come together to teach and to warn, to imprint themselves on a reader. Each word is there because it needs to be, because it fits, because none other would serve as well. Wiesel listened.

The late Stephen Spender in the making of a poem urged that poets aspire to create a world through "a kind of language of our inner wishes and thoughts ... a language of flesh and roses." And so, he could write:

How can they call this dark when stars
That all day long the sun rules out
Show brilliant at the ends of space?

Each word, again, has been carefully selected, and the placement of each word has been just as carefully designated. Spender listened.

A Melodic Flow

As did that legendary writer for the New Yorker Joseph Mitchell when he noted:

I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice. I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running -- a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide -- and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls that sometimes last as long as half an hour, during which, all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.

Mitchell had to watch and watch and watch again to capture his subject. But then, having recreated the observations on paper, he had to hear the words to make sure he had really captured the scene. He had. Mitchell listened. In his passage, there is that sense of flow, of words, of words nesting where they belong. No element is out of place. The words are like a melodic line.


It is the writer's responsibility to listen, whether what ends up on paper is to be prose or poetry. Rhythms that comfort or excite result. Flowerings of language which entice or amaze result. Lessons which sink in and stick around result. Inspirations which lift and enrich result. Fiction or nonfiction which has meaning and imports results.

Scott Russell Sanders recalls a moment out of childhood in an essay for the Gettysburg Review. He had been taken to the funeral of someone he knew.

The following Sunday, while a visitor preached, I stole from the church and crept over to the parsonage. I drew to the edge of the porch, wrapped my fingers around the spindles of the railing, and stared at the empty rocker. Rev. Knipe will never sit in that chair again, I'd told myself. Never, never, never. I tried to imagine how long forever would last. I'd tried to imagine how it would feel to be nothing. No thing. Suddenly chair and house and daylight vanished, and I was gazing into a dark hole, I was falling, I was gone. I caught a whiff of death, the damp earthy smell seeping from beneath the porch. It was also the smell of mud, of leaping grass, of spring. Clinging to that sensation, I pulled myself out of the hole. There was the house again, that chair. I let go of the railing, swung away, and ran back to the church, chanting to myself: He was old and I am young. He was old and am young.

The music of death and life results. And what a gift that it is -- from you to your waiting reader. Those, too, were words listened to, each noun and every verb. So precise they are and so deftly combined. They have cadence and texture.

Consider writing and art for listening.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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