Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pope on Fluency


 

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 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?

4 comments:

  1. Oh, wow, this is brilliant! I will not stick this poem on my wall— actually I'll just write it on my wall. I have never consciously noticed this before, but I bet I will now.

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  2. I try to do this with verse. Not only word choice adds to the fluency and pacing, but so does a poem's structure. Word placement can force a reader to speed up or slow down.

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  3. I haven't heard anyone quote Pope since I was an English major, many moons ago. Now, all these years later, I "get" him better than I ever did.

    Thanks, Shannon!

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  4. Hello diction, my old friend.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!