Elevating Prose Rhythm Consciousness
We generally think that the topic of rhythm in language is totally owned by the poets, the slam poets, the rappers, and the songwriters. Meter and scansion, internal rhyme, and all that jazz. Those that talk about prose rhythm often confine the conversation to sentence structure or word selection.
I’m more ambitious than that on behalf of rhythm in prose. It’s a characteristic that the reader resonates with even as it remains invisible. Let’s assume that we can elevate our attention from the word and sentence level to seek larger structures that repeat and resonate, setting up expectations of literary recurrence that speak to us as surely as do the turning of the seasons. What can the prose writer become more aware of to consciously harness its power to reinforce the themes of a narrative? How do you recognize this elusive quality and work with it as another layer of craft?
Perhaps this is one of those quests that’s noble in its very pursuit, even as you suspect that you will never really arrive at an easily identifiable answer. My journey began with applying an observation by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones to my own work. She pointed out that a writer’s sense of rhythm in prose arises from the ambient rhythms in their life. She spoke of the rhythms of the Hebrew cantor; I recognized the shape of the blues in my own work. Early drafts of my prose often included rhythms rooted in a classic form of the blues, that is, reflecting an A A B pattern of repetition. This influenced me to repeat lines of dialogue or descriptive phrases in my fiction.
However, readers often pointed out that, since fiction is a constructed reality, a repetitive phrase often marks a point of importance. Sometimes, my readers complained that a repetition gave a false sense of importance to a narrative element. Once I recognized the source of this rhythmic habit (the blues), I learned to control it better, foregoing random appearances for deliberate ones that best serve the structure of a story. I have a well-developed sense of rhythm, and, as I said, my ambitions for rhythmic virtuosity are wide-ranging, yet I cannot deny that the origin of my propensity and interest in this subject is directly connected to my African American experience.
I was also grappling with how to interweave the two main storylines told by multiple POV characters in my first novel, Home Front Lines. With my epiphany about the blues rhythms in my writing, I first pursued the idea of elevating awareness of prose rhythm by studying Toni Morrison’s Jazz. In this iconic work, Morrison constructs an unconventional narrative comprised of multiple POVs and non-linear timelines through the rhythms and repetitions of a traditional jazz song. The richness of rhythmic applications fascinated me, from swinging sentences to the bridging of meaning across every chapter break to the regular tradeoffs among POV characters that suggests soloists taking turns leading the choruses of a jazz song.
While the nature of Morrison’s Jazz suggests where and how to look for prose rhythm, one of its themes is music. I wondered if I could find rhythms in a novel that is not focused on a theme with such obvious rhythmic characteristics. I decided to apply what I had learned to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, a novel that, like Jazz, addresses issues of race and identity while employing metaphorical and allegorical imagery.
Unlike Jazz, there are no routine chapter breaks in The Intuitionist. Instead, the story is told in a series of vignettes that could be imagined as blackout skits on a stage or screen. Some of these sketches run for several pages and constitute full scenes. Others consist of only a few words, such as “What floor?” There is no rhythm to the length of the vignettes, nor is there rhythm to their subject matter or perspective. It was an excellent candidate for determining whether I could identify important rhythmic recurrences.
In this alternate history set in early to mid-century America, Whitehead uses elevators and their contributions to building landscapes to construct brilliant metaphors for race and race relations in this country. A dominant theme is the elevation of the black race. He sustains the metaphoric devices by developing the nature and history of both the elevator itself and the Elevator Guild, the organization of inspectors that keeps elevators safe. The Guild is a powerful political force, split into two factions, the Empiricists, who trust only physical evidence of an elevator’s condition, and the upstart Intuitionists, who use imagery and feeling to assess an elevator’s state. At the same time, the metaphors echo the philosophical and social movements involved in the West’s evolution from the industrial age to the information age, from economics based on what one can see and feel to those based on what one thinks and knows. Whitehead’s metaphors are extensive and complex enough to be considered allegory.
The action of this race allegory, mystery, alternate-history-bordering-on-science-fiction lives within the framework and conventions of the detective story. An elevator in a new government building falls to complete destruction just as the mayor is about to board it. Foul play or neglect by an elevator inspector are suspected, so the Elevator Guild becomes involved. Lila Mae Watson, an Intuitionist and the first female colored elevator inspector in the city, is the last to inspect the elevator before it falls. Therefore, she is the prime suspect and needs to solve the mystery to save herself. The MacGuffin in this story is what went wrong with the elevator that fell, and who sabotaged it.
At first, the novel doesn’t appear to follow strong rhythmic habits. As I mentioned, there is no discernible pattern to the vignettes, and the language is stuffed with distinctly unpoetic technical verbiage such as “vertical conveyance” instead of “elevator.” However, it does yield rhythmic repetitions and recurrences on closer examination.
For instance, one stretch of dialogue highlights key elements of the story as Mr. Reed, the secretary to the Intuitionist candidate for the Guild Chair, has just rescued Lila Mae from two intruders in her apartment. He then questions her, resulting in a passage that falls neatly into the form of a sonnet. The “sonnet” doesn’t include the beginning of this two-person dialogue, but it does encompass the lines that are delivered in the staccato, interrogative patter of a police procedural: a presumed authority asks questions of the protagonist and receives curt, evasive answers or none at all. I’ve introduced “verse” breaks to highlight the sonnet’s form:
“I think we should be going, Miss Watson. I wouldn’t advise staying here tonight.”
“This is my home.”
“And if I hadn’t stepped in?”
“I would have taken care of it.”
“My car is waiting downstairs. You inspected the Fanny Briggs building, did you not?”
“You know I did.”
“Then what went wrong?”
Nothing went wrong.
“You are aware, Miss Watson, that those men aren’t from Internal Affairs, yes?”
“Then who were they?”
“Has it occurred to you yet that you were set up?”
The accident is impossible. It wasn’t an accident.
The lines that end each of the “sonnet’s” three “verses” are not dialogue, but rather are Lila Mae’s internal monologue that states the paradox:
Nothing went wrong.
The accident is impossible. It wasn’t an accident.
Out of the classical sonnet emerge a pop blues and the mysteries that Lila Mae goes on to solve. I’ve included this example, not to suggest mimicking it (although that might be fun), but to illustrate how Whitehead’s life experiences with classical poetry and popular music came into play as he wrote what we recognize as police procedural patter.
On another level, the novel’s overall organizing concept is also rhythmic in nature. Up and down. One of the most basic rhythms in nature. The two major divisions of this novel, whose protagonist is an elevator inspector, are aptly titled “Down” and “Up.” Each is roughly half the book, and each is further divided into Parts One and Two, quartering the novel into nearly equal parts. These divisions create a repetition of length that the reader resonates with.
I wound up using the repetition of length as an organizing principle of Home Front Lines to interweave the two storylines that follow African American military spouses and Cuban sisters during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The number of chapters was not equal between the two storylines, but the number of pages were approximately the same. I didn’t set out to write storylines of roughly equal length, so perhaps the fact that I did rests on my inherent sense of rhythm. However, in becoming aware of it, I often bundled two—and once even three—chapters from the same storyline before switching to the other to create the regular recurrences that the reader comes to expect.
In this case, elevating awareness of rhythm in prose allowed me to use it to help the reader feel comfortable, with not only where they are in the story, but where they will be going.
Brenda Sparks Prescott lives and writes in Eastern Massachusetts and Southern Vermont. Prescott is the co-editor of Solstice Literary Magazine and her writing has appeared in publications such as The Louisville Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Portland Magazine. Her novel Home Front Lines is now available at Amazon, Bookshop.org, and wherever books are sold.
Connect with Brenda Sparks Prescott at BrendaPrescott.com, at @bsparksprescott on Instagram, @bsprescott on Twitter, and BrendaSparksPrescott on Facebook.