Lyric Techniques in Your Language Help
Paying attention to the music in your poetry and prose helps you build the emotional content and meaning of your writing:
An essential element for good writing is a good ear: one must listen to the sound of one's prose.
Sound itself... is surely a signifier of mood, and thus of message...
Use Repetition, But Artfully
As writers, we must be aware that repeating words without thinking about whether that helps or diminishes our writing can lead to avoiding the work of mining ourselves to write what we truly feel and know. Recently, I read a high school student's draft for an essay addressing the qualities of effective learning environments. In the excerpt below, I have bolded words to highlight the tiresome repetition:
The people who live in this environment must take the role of an intellectual. They must first be intelligent. Without intelligence there will be no discussions, only foolery and actions. While intelligence will give the people the ideas and allow them to think of ways to spread them effectively, it is nothing without friendliness. For ideas to be exchanged all the people involved in the discussion must be friendly. They will then be willing to talk. Not only will they talk but they will hear. Each person will listen to what is being talked about, think on it, and present what he or she believes on the subject. This will transform the conversation from the blurting of ideas into the thoughtful contemplation of what each person knows.
Of course the main problem here is that the writer is not backing up assertions with specifics and examples. That he seems to be chasing his own tail is coming unwittingly from the sound the repetitions are making.
Compare the repetition in this unworked draft to that in master orator Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm). Here are some of Dr. King's famous repetitions:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
Since this writing was delivered by Dr. King himself, it is hard for some of us to separate the text from our memory of his soaring voice. But this speech works equally well as a written document. The artful, intentional drama created by repeating the phrase "I have a dream" is a lyric device that keeps the reader moving down the page and experiencing all that has been denied those whose skin color is not white. Even those unmoved by the fight for equal rights for all races could not have avoided experiencing the passion and dignity of the music in Martin Luther King Jr.'s argument.
Repetition is forceful in carrying the reader into the deeper emotions of a story. In Tim O'Brien's famous "The Things They Carried," (http://web.archive.org/web/20011222025122/www.nku.edu/~peers/thethingstheycarried.htm) the emotional weight of serving in Vietnam accumulates in readers just as it does in the bodies and souls of the soldiers O'Brien describes. In one passage, the word "as" is repeated to introduce the specific roles of each soldier:
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass...
As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio...
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets...
As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbin's carried the M-60...
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle...
In another passage, the repetition O'Brien uses involves the phrase "they carried" at the start of successive sentences. The soldiers are no longer singled out by role but have become a collective:
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, bush hats, bolos, and much more.
Again, as in King's speech, the repeated words make us look up close at the writer's subject. They create a music of persistence.
In August, 1970, Judy Syfers read an essay she wrote, "Why I Want a Wife," (www.cwluherstory.org/why-i-want-a-wife.html) before a San Francisco crowd celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. A year later, the essay appeared in the first issue of Ms. Magazine. The essay travels down the page via the repetition of the phrase, "I want a wife who will..." The phrase introduces and occurs inside paragraphs on caring for children, meeting the needs of a husband, and selflessly giving up one's own life. Here are some of those phrases:
I want a wife who will work and send me to school...
I want a wife to take care of my children...
I want a wife to keep track of the children's doctor and dentist appointments...
I want a wife who takes care of the children when...they are sick...
I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean....
I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue to care for me and my children when I need a rest and change of scene.
At the essay's conclusion, the syntax changes:
If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one...When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife's duties.
We read our way to the essay's last sentence feeling a sense of momentum. When that last sentence turns out to be the question, "Who wouldn't want a wife?" the answer we feel inside plays off of the list of "I want a wife who" phrases. In the same way that Dr. King gets his listeners to internalize the knowledge that those discriminated against are as real and human as those doing the discriminating, Syfers gets her listeners to understand that seeing a woman only as a role causes her mate to dehumanize her.
Another famous document that employs repetition artfully is Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" (www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/ ), where he uses this rhetorical tool of phrase repetition to build the case against the King of England:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
What if the student working to define an effective learning environment took a lesson from these master writers? Here's a possibility:
Intelligence is not the mere blurting of ideas. Intelligence is the opposite of foolery and meaningless action. And intelligence is nothing without friendliness, for if ideas are to be exchanged, all of those involved in discussion must be willing to talk—not only willing to talk but to hear, and to think about what they've heard.
Not a perfect piece of writing yet by any means, but listening for music that the repeated words can make has changed the sound into that of a march toward a patient persuasion rather than the annoying sound of a needle stuck in the groove of a record.
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