On the second page of William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions,” one of those unplumbed novels that accuse me from my shelves, the following sentences unspool themselves:
The ship's surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy's ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard …. He diagnosed Camilla's difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin.
William H. Gass, in his introduction, quotes these sentences — mark you that I have read William H. Gass' introduction to William Gaddis' "The Recognitions" — and coos: "I particularly like the double ts with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends … or the play with d and c in the same section." The double ts are my favorite part too — spotty, little, cigarette, knotted, buttons. The sound gives us a sense of the man, through contrast: this disheveled creature is sharply turned out in bespoke phonemes.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Beguiled by the sounds of words since I first heard an eight-track cassette of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as a child — "Mr. H will demonstrate ten somersets he'll undertake on solid ground" — I collect such mellifluent instances. Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), on "Trout Mask Replica," responds to the line "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous" with: "I love that, I love all those words." That's how I feel about Gertrude Stein's "A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes" or Eminem's "The Shady is really a fake alias to save me with in case I get chased by space aliens."
I'm not much interested in academic analysis of why we find certain sounds in certain combinations pleasing or disturbing. You can discover all sorts of pseudoscientific twaddle about this question (and many others) in the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. (Steven Pinker, for instance, while charitably denying that the arts are biologically adaptive, helpfully explains that we enjoy them because they push our "pleasure buttons." Groovy.) But I do enjoy the hows.
Derek Attridge, in a bravura reading of the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, points out that there are at least two conflicting ways in which we take pleasure in poetic sound (a heightened attention to aural effects being more common in poetry than prose). First, "the sounds of language draw attention to themselves and their configuration, independently of their referential function"; second, the sounds contribute to "an enhanced experience of referentiality."
The first we might paraphrase, with Wallace Stevens in "The Idea of Order at Key West," as "The heaving speech of air, a summer sound / Repeated in a summer without end / And sound alone." This is often said (wrongly, I think) to be Algernon Charles Swinburne's particular virtue or defect (usually the latter). As he wrote prankishly of himself:
A perennial procession of phrases
Pranked primly, though pruriently prime,
Precipitates preachings on praises
In a ruffianly riot of rhyme ….
Or listen to Harryette Mullen's lines from her religious-anagram-mad "Lunar Lutheran":
In chapels of opals and spice, O Pisces pal, your social pep makes you a friend to all Episcopals. … I heard this from a goy who taught yoga in the home of Goya. His Buddhist robe hid this budding D bust in this B movie dud. If Ryan bites a rep, a Presbyterian is best in prayer.
No one knows what it means, but it's provocative. (Actually, I could argue that it performs a Saussurean critique of religion. But I won't.)
The second we might paraphrase, with the same poem of Stevens, as "mimic motion." Yeats' "I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore" laps the ear with low sounds. This is what Alexander Pope means by "The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense," which he demonstrates in "An Essay on Criticism":
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 shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock's vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labors, and the Words move slow.
My favorite example of this mimic motion is Allen Ginsberg's line in "Howl": "who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night." The harsh consonants of "boxcars" racket in succession like the sound of the passing boxcars themselves. (There's also a visual component here, the repeated words resembling the seemingly identical cars flashing by. Paul Muldoon nods in Ginsberg's direction in his sonnet "The Train," which "takes forever to pass / with its car after car of coal and gas / and salt and wheat and rails and railway ties.")
In prose, such effects are perhaps less apparent (except in such obvious cases as James Joyce and Stein) but no less pleasing. Thomas Browne writes in "Urn Burial," "To burn the bones of the King of Edom for lime seems no irrational ferity; but to drink the ashes of dead relations a passionate prodigality." Or again, "And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names." In this latter, the "conjunctions" death denies are cruelly exemplified by alliteration and assonance, and by the run of semantic cousins ending in –ction.
One can go too far. Many readers have felt that Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Swinburne and Stein do, although I am not among their number (or, rather, their going so far is precisely what I love about them). Samuel Johnson could not abide Shakespeare's fondness for "quibbles," or puns (a special case of sound's enhancement of referentiality): "A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapors are to the traveler," leading him astray. (My students never quite believe me when I point out the play in Hamlet's "country matters," at least not until I show them a few of the Second Earl of Rochester's bawdier poems.) Stevens occasionally poked fun at his own tendency to sonic boisterousness — "Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk," "With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how," "This trivial trope reveals a way of truth."
In the field of phonaesthetics, which exists, the phrase "cellar door" is sometimes regarded as the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language, though no one can say by whom, exactly. I might plump for William Blake's "wash the dusk with silver." But there is no telling what will arrest the ear: Cormac McCarthy's "The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely space of black at all"; Lisa Jarnot's "I am you on the back of a motorcycle crossing Dolores in the pineapple groves of Elvis Costello"; Andrew Marvell's "Annihilating all that's made / To a green thought in a green shade"; Barry Hannah's "In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista."
The Scottish poet W.S. Graham used to begin his readings with the imperative "Listen. Listen." Another great man put it this way: "That's right, The Mascara Snake — fast and bulbous."
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
→Peculiar Language by Derek Attridge
→The Recognitions by William Gaddis
→Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
→Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen
→Selected Poetry by Alexander Pope
→Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
→The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens
→Major Poems and Selected Prose by Algernon Charles Swinburne
→Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats