Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rhythm in writing

The rhythms when I write - poems, fiction, other sorts of prose - are fed by what I've read and been read since childhood. Of this I'm sure. A certain beat in a poem feels familiar, right, and I wonder what, where...? And then it comes to me, often some time later - Dr Seuss! Rupert Brooke!

The same is true of prose. A word often needs to be changed because it makes me uncomfortable for some reason, it might be the wrong word - too strong for the sentence or paragraph, not necessary, inappropriate, sentimental ... Or it could be that it doesn't have quite the right rhythm. The sentence or paragraph is a body and this word is the dicky hip. I keep coming back to it, I can't leave it alone, I know it needs changing. I try another one - and it fits. Ahh.

I know that my sense of the rightness or wrongness of a particular word is informed by my own interior sense of rhythm, and I often wonder what it is about a particular rhythm that feels familiar. It rarely comes immediately. I sometimes think I've stolen the whole thing (words and rhythm) without realising, and wake in a cold sweat.

Nervous - I focus on some of the likely writers I might have raided e.g. my prose favourites - Janet Frame, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Paul Auster  ...  It may not come immediately, if at all. When it does, it can be the oddest thing sometimes, not what I expected, not always literary: an advertising jingle, for example ... but there is no doubting that the phrase has lodged in me and been revived.

This happened this week with a poem I spent a few days on. When I got to the end of it,  there was a penultimate line missing. It finished too quickly. Reading it aloud, the line came: whole, intact, absolutely right. I wrote it in, and then worried. Where had it come from? It felt too easy, and somehow familiar. I fretted over it (and about the ultimate line, which was also the first line ... had it come from somewhere? It seemed a double concern now the new line was bouncing up and down declaring itself from somewhere else unknown.)

I googled the ulimate line, nothing popped up. I tried variations of it - nothing.

I walked around with the poem for days worrying at it. I tried relaxing my mind (like I do when I'm trying to remember people's names) and flipped through some possible poet's names. Nothing came that sat easily with what I'd written. Perhaps I was imagining it. Then again, I read so many poems these days, it could come from anywhere.

Then after four days, the penultimate line clicked into place without fanfare. I realised its rhythm and its sense came from a poem written and read by a character in a not-so-recent Hollywood movie, that my daughter and I enjoy and have watched a few times together. Who would credit it!

With that revelation, the genesis of the final line (also the first line) announced itself. I realised it had come from a well-known scene in a play of Shakespeare's, one I've known since I appeared in it at the age of 17. Not the actual words, but the sense of them, the urgency, the rhythm.

Crazy huh?


Elisabeth said...

It never ceases to amaze me too, Mary, where our words and rhythms come from. They seem to be tucked away in some unused memory store in the backs of our minds and when they appear and especially when they seem to work it can feel as if they must have been stolen from elsewhere and in a sense they most likely were. And when does it matter?

I feel for those people who have a so-called photographic memory. Plagiarism for them becomes an occupational hazard.

Thanks for a fascinating post.

Bookman Beattie said...

I'd like to read that poem Mary.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Elisabeth - you're right - when does it matter? A nicked rhythm is different from nicked words - and we enjoy it when written work resonates with stuff from other work as long as that's all it does.

And I will pop the poem up soon, Bookman. I am pleased with it, and happier now I know where it's come from...

Tim Upperton said...

Cf. Hopkins's "I caught this morning morning's minion" with Hughes's "I imagine this midnight moment's forest" - if you elide the first i in "imagine", the rhythm's identical, and Hughes pinched the alliteration, too!

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Tim - that's wonderful! Do you think Hughes set out to make Hopkins' wonderful line his own, or it just happened? I've often thought I'd love to find a way in to creating Hopkins-type sounds and rhythm in my work, but it seems so much his and unstealable ...

Tim said...

Hi Mary! I think Hughes must have had Hopkins's "The Windhover" in mind when he wrote "The Thought-Fox" - there are similarities in theme, too. I like the way the two poems call out to each other - you can miss the allusion and read Hughes's poem fine, but it's richer with the Hopkins context.