Making Prose Sing
The prose medium gets a lot of bad press. Take the definition of the adjective prosaic, for instance – “like prose, commonplace, lacking in poetic beauty.” Or, even worse, prosy – “showing no imagination, dull.” Oscar Wilde famously dismissed Robert Browning as a “prose” poet, suggesting his verse was a vast collection of lyrically dead lines. And, of course, when romance novelists make a self-conscious effort to inflate passages with ornate, pretentious diction, we ridicule it as “purple prose.”
All of which would seem to say prose is designed for and should limit itself to pedestrian purposes: narration, matter-of-fact description, rational debate, and the like. The music of language – certainly its sublime possibilities – should, on the other hand, be left to poetry and song to reveal. Or so the simplistic argument runs.
The Romans and Greeks thought otherwise. They placed a premium on rhetoric, the art of persuasion in speaking and writing, and expected the prose of its practitioners to move an audience emotionally. Their prose should include not only colorful figures of speech, but a full range of prescribed devices, from assonance and alliteration to the syntax and rhythms of poetry.
We see it in full flower in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in the oratorical efforts of Brutus and Marc Antony to win the allegiance of the Roman populace. Leaving the pentameter line-length aside, each monologue is a rhetorical tour de force, swaying its audience more by a pattern of verse-and-refrain than by reason or logic. Likewise, John Donne lifts prose into the realm of lyric poetry in a celebrated paragraph out of Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions – a passage that ends, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The paragraph is, in fact, such sublime prose that many internet sites seem to believe it is actually a poem.
As for classical French prose, the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, though less spiritual in tone, are as economical and finely wrought as poetry. To wit, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue,” “We can always forgive the people who bore us, but we can never forgive the people we bore,” and “Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire.”
Coming forward in time and across the pond, generations have been moved by the Ciceronian triad Jefferson used to name our inalienable rights – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – and at least as much by Lincoln’s hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” We hardly think them prosy and forgettable words.
In the last century, in prose as memorable as poetry, Churchill refused to play down the threat of Hitler (“I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat”). Twenty years later, Kennedy likewise challenged a nation’s patriotism (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”)
These are examples of a rare sort of prose: prose that for want of a better word rises to the level of eloquence. Sadly, it’s a tiny, almost infinitesimal fraction of what’s out there. Below it lies a wide body of quite serviceable prose, articulate, publication-worthy sentences and paragraphs that adequately convey their meaning and may even persuade a dispassionate listener or reader. Below that middle-grade is an almost bottomless depth of bad prose – tedious, cliché-ridden, derivative, empty of variety in syntax, diction or image. It’s the signature of the bombastic politician and the hack writer. And because of its ubiquity, it’s also the chief reason for the bad name prose has acquired among those who prize beauty in language.
With sufficient education and practice, many writers of bad prose can rise out of the muck and learn to communicate without boring or irritating the reader. Diction that never includes long words simply for their own sake (“utilization” instead of “use,” for example) or leans too much on a single word or phrase; a syntax that mixes simple, compound and complex constructions; a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths that avoids a sleep-inducing, metronomic rhythm; a rejection of stock phrasing and cliches; an addiction to the rule that brevity is wit – these are the basics of serviceable, readable prose. A patient teacher can teach it; a better-than-average student can learn it.
What about eloquent prose, you ask, prose that doesn’t just articulate its meaning, but lifts it into the realm of art? How do you teach or learn a choice and rhythm of words that has the power to move an audience or a reader to tears? How do you find a metaphor or an image to illustrate your point that so surprises and delights, that so perfectly resonates with an audience that it becomes everyone’s metaphor (“the city on the hill,” “the glass of fashion and the mold of form”)? Sorry to say, you can’t teach it and you can’t learn it. It requires, not training, but a literary sensibility touched with genius.
You can make yourself, with enough diligence, into a decent writer. You cannot, I’m just as sure, slog your way into writing great or eloquent prose.
Before I close, I’d like to recommend a dozen or so examples of prose that sings (at least for me), both in fiction and non-fiction. From Fitzgerald, his take on the carelessness of the rich, again in Gatsby; from Joyce, the last paragraph of “The Dead”; from Joan Didion, the opening of the first essay in Slouching toward Bethlehem; from Walter Pater, the concluding paragraphs to Studies in the Renaissance; from Thomas Wolfe, the opening of Look Homeward, Angel; from Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre’s cry for freedom from the rooftop of Thornfield; from Charles Darwin, the description of a tangled bank in On the Origin of Species; from Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts as she steps into a London street; from Hemingway, why the Spanish love bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon; from Matthew Arnold, his vigorous defense of the arts in “Literature and Science”; from George Eliot, her reflections on the fate of most of us in Middlemarch.
But I can’t leave off without quoting in full one other example. It’s from “Knoxville, Summer 1915,” the preface to James Agee’s A Death in the Family. The speaker is a bright and sensitive little boy, wondering at the world he’s been born into:
“On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking of much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
“After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not tell me who I am.”