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.
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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.