The music of language

Picture of QuinquiremeHave you ever given any thought to the music of language? You know when you go to the movies and there’s a sound track to go with the pictures and the sound track sort of tells you how you’re supposed to feel in this bit. Here you’re tense with eerie long drawn out notes capturing the mood; there you’re sad (the violins kick in); another exciting part is full of drumming. Even pictures need sound.

As writers we have to provide the whole deal – pictures, emotions, smells, story. Choice of words, length of sentences help to convey sound and feelings and pictures.

John Masefield’s little poem ‘Cargoes’ has stayed with me since I first read it at high school because the poet has used language so very well.

QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Read the first verse aloud. You can almost see the sweat glistening on the backs of the slaves as they pull the oars to the time of the great drum on the stern. And that’s because Masefield used words that fit the rhythm of rowing. Three syllables in ‘quinquereme’ and in ‘Nineveh’, and again in ‘distant Ophir’. The triples persist in the cargo list.

The second verse is about a sailing ship. The whole verse is full of sibilants and my mind is filled with an image of filled sails, warm seas running past her bows. The list of cargo sways with the swell.

In the third verse the words chosen are sharp, chopped, bitten-off. The grotty steamer butts through the cold waters of the channel. We don’t even get an image of the shore as we do in the other two – just the mad March days. The cargo is clipped and terse.

To me, this use of language is masterful. Most of us know that when you’re writing something exciting you use short, direct, active language, avoiding ‘ing’ words and so on. The choice of words is important, too. Onomatopoeic words (words that sound like what they mean) can be very powerful. Everybody knows a few; crack, pow, zip, tumble, clatter. Cleverly used, language can convey so much more than just the meaning of the words.

For instance, in the second verse Masefield doesn’t use the word ‘sailing’ or even a synonym. Who would think of using the word ‘dipping’ for a ship at sea? But think about; it’s so right it conjures up such a wonderful visual. In a similar vein, you won’t find ‘butting’ in your thesaurus under sailing or steaming, either. Yet it thrusts the image at you; a stormy sea, a bow crashing through spray.

Masefield is just one example; there are many others from whom we can learn how to use language as a symphony, music that carries readers along with us. Do you know of any?

4 thoughts on “The music of language

  1. Andrew

    Great post Greta. I start my own novel with a poem… a poem that says do much, carries within it the secret to the novel itself. The whole novel is written in a prose style, with many, many meanings intertwined into each other… you’ll see soon if you buy a copy. I am reading it through one last time and I have to say – I blew my own mind reading it again. I read it and think – I’ve done it, I have created what I set out to create, not just a novel, not just a story, but a work of art. 12 years on a single project, poetry runs through the whole thing, and the words themselves convey much more than is first thought, but come back again and again like the melody in a song or a poem, intertwined, entangled, until at last, the meanings tumble out and the reader is left realizing that what comes to pass… was there at the very begining.

    Believe me, it will all make sense.

  2. Sandie

    Yes, I’ve long felt poetry (and song lyrics) are useful resource for narrative writers. It’s the necessity of focus in poetry – having to use few words to say much – which is, I think, a good lesson for us all in brevity. The word choices you mention above are all down to the writer’s effective imagination but also because of the constraint… poets are, perhaps, instinctively aware of the need for that brevity in a way we narrative writers are prone to forget… and so we waffle on… like this reply… and we think “ah, it’ll all be sorted in the edit”.

    There are lots of poems (and songs) from which I’ve taken inspiration. For me it’s not always interesting word choices but more where the writer has made an acute observation in very few words… taken something big and conveyed it with glorious brevity. There are way too many to give as examples – Eliot and Larkin are often favourites – but as I say songs too and one of those which springs to mind is the Cohen number “Bird on a Wire” wherein the lines:

    I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
    he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
    And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
    she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

    … which to me is a glorious condensing of SO much – nothing more needs saying.

    But, as I say, there are so many examples…

  3. Kellie Kamryn

    I think you are so right at the power of words to convey an image in our mind’s eye. One of the first poems I had to memorize for an English class back in seventh grade was one of Robert Frost’s but I can’t remember it now. It did have to do with winter and I remember the language making the poem so vivid in my mind.

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