Music on the Page

Here on Easter Sunday, I’m thinking about sounds from the Sundays of my childhood. The whisper of the tissue-thin pages of Bibles being turned in church, the creaking of the wooden pews as someone settled their weight or leaned forward in prayer, the sonorous voice of the man who sang with the spirit that filled him. Psalm 100 told us to “make a joyful noise,” and we did the best we could.

And sometimes there were the quavering voices and sobs from those who went forward at the invitation to confess their sins and to accept Christ. There was the solemn recitation of prayer, and the earnest “amen” at each prayer’s end: “This I ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior, and amen.”

The language of the King James Bible was itself a kind of music. The poet, W.H. Auden called poetry “memorable speech.” The King James Bible offers so many examples. Take, for interest, Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Namoi, as expressed in the Book of Ruth, 1:16: “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. . . .” Or this: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. . . .” Or, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

When I was young, I loved recitation: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Often, I didn’t fully know the meaning of what I recited, but I fell in love with the sound of it. I fell in love with the music language can make.

In some way, I suppose, I was already training for the life of a writer. For me, that life became one of telling stories, but at the same time I’ve spent years paying attention to the structure of sentences that can lift off the page and become “memorable speech.” I have sentences from other writers’ books that I often find myself reciting. They move me with their beauty and grace. A few such lines from Kathleen Finneran’s haunting memoir, The Tender Land, will always be with me. The story of her teenage brother’s suicide, the book ends with these lines of direct address:

Sean, time passes, it’s true. Hours, days, and decades. And grief goes by its own measure. Now, before this day of angels ends again, before the sky changes color and the moon follows in its phase from full to new, I want to call out your name and tell you, across the tender land, that we have gone on living. We are all, every one of us, alive.

I could go on and on about how this passage achieves its effect. I could talk about the artful use of pauses (caesuras of a sort) within the long sentence that gathers steam as it charges ahead, the commas barely holding it back until it breaks into the urgent desire of the speaker to call out her brother’s name. I could talk about the effect of the final sentence that follows the rush of the penultimate sentence with a blunt brevity that emphasizes the family’s hard-won survival on the other side of tragedy. I could talk about the way the final word, “alive,” receives extra emphasis because of the pause that “every one of us” provides. The end of this sentence, and the end of this passage, and the end of this book resonates because a writer paid close attention to the sound her words were making on the page. May we all, every one of us—no matter what the sounds of our childhoods may have been—may we understand the poetry that carefully constructed prose can make. May we write the sort of sentences that readers will commit to memory so they can recite them whenever the desire compels them.

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