While sound is certainly important, and language in the proper hands has its own music, syllabic harmonies need not be trumpeted as though they were the foundation of good prose.
By Vincent Czyz.
“Writing,” Gary Lutz asserts in “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” (The Believer), “is rich to the extent that the drama of the subject matter is supplemented or deepened by the drama of the letters within the words as they inch their way closer to each other or push significantly off.” Lutz elaborates on his thesis with a little Gordon Lish worship: “[Lish] instructed his students in a poetics of the sentence that emphasized what he called consecution: a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.”
Lutz illustrates this “discharge” with a sentence written by Christine Schutt: “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tallowy.” Lutz, assuming that the last word in this sentence was also the last one written, falls into almost unseemly ecstasies: “What [Schutt] winds up doing is literally dragging forward the previous adjective, tall, and using it as the base on which further letters can be erected. The result is the astounding, perfect tallowy—the sort of adjective she never could have arrived at if she had turned a synonymicon upside down in search of words that capture the quality of light.”
Lutz, it seems, is a little too enamored of overstatement. Words don’t really merit comparison with skyscrapers (though certainly novels might); letters aren’t “erected.” But even if we grant Lutz his over-the-top tendencies, unless Lutz knows Schutt and she told him tallowy is the last word she came up with in that sentence, there’s no reason to think this must have been the case. Yet Lutz is insistent: “. . . Schutt is seeking the inevitable adjective to insert into the final slot in the sentence . . .” (Not to be peevish, but if the adjective were inevitable, Schutt wouldn’t have to look for it; it would have gotten there on its own. Placing a premium on sound, Lutz confounds his meaning: “inevitable adjective to insert” had enough repetitive aural appeal to win out over clarity.) While Lutz’s reconstruction is possible, it’s equally possible it has no bearing whatsoever on what actually happened. Only Schutt knows the order in which the words actually appeared. Tallowy may have preceded tall, and tall may have been chosen to go with tallowy rather than the reverse. Who knows but the house may originally have been wide, but, for those—like Lutz—hooked on phonics, was altered appropriately?
A minor point in any event. More importantly, I can’t agree that tallowy is le mot just or that the sentence is worth worshiping; I find it somewhat problematic. First of all, tall is not particularly practical as an adjective for a house. Is the house three stories? Four? Five? Or is it two narrow stories? Secondly, tall describes the house, not the quality of the light filling it, so I expected both adjectives to modify the house. Thirdly, tallow is animal fat—hardly descriptive of light—although once upon a time it was used to make candles. So my first thought was of a tall, greasy house. I read it again. I thought Schutt might have confused taper and tallow and meant to write, “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tapering” . . . or maybe “tall and tapery.” I’m not being disingenuous; I simply didn’t get her meaning until Lutz elucidated.
The only other place I’ve seen tallowy as an adjective is in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where it is used to call up a quality of cheese, itself called on to impart to us some idea of the consistency corpses take on at a certain stage of decomposition. And I certainly didn’t remember this from my reading of Joyce; a Google search turned it up. The point is, it is used to denote animal fat (which makes sense), not as species of light (which is confusing).
My confusion can be cleared up maybe by reconstructing the sentence using wax, which long ago replaced tallow as candle-filler in developed nations: “Here is the house at night, lit up wide and waxy.” I’ve changed the proportions of the house to suit the sound of the sentence although I suppose I lost the “discharge” from deep within the word—a phrase that, even in its original form, is hyperbole: Tall has four letters and one syllable; how deep can we go into it? Let’s try again: “Here is the house at night, waxing bright, wide and waxy.” Despite the similarity of sounds, something simply doesn’t work. To be fair, Lutz never said repeating syllables or letters was the only element in a handsome sentence, but he certainly implies it.
The result of Schutt’s choice is not, as I see it, “astounding” and “perfect”; it’s a choice that elevates the sounds of words over their meanings and results in an unclear sentence, which I don’t think was the intent. (I wrote think rather than believe in order to attain not just assonance, but to get the in to click in with the first syllable of intent, and of course I avoided using the word idea or the clause what she had in mind so I didn’t lose the t in don’t ting-ing off the t in intent—the last letter of the last word in the sentence, which Lutz might argue seals the sense of finality, though I would maintain that if I had used a different word or phrase, it’s unlikely anyone would have noticed or cared.)
Another problem—rather prosaic—with Schutt’s sentence is that I doubt many people alive today have ever seen an animal-fat candle burn. I know I haven’t. I therefore can’t say how light given off by animal fat differs from light given off by Edison’s incandescent invention. I suppose I can assume the house is illuminated as though by candle light—an attractive image—but again, using tallowy is about the same as using waxy (in terms of meaning), and that is simply not the image conveyed. And a sentence of this length really shouldn’t require this much inner wrangling on the reader’s part.
So we return to Lutz’s thesis, that the sounds of letters composing words—not the meanings, not what the words convey—take precedence over everything but the subject matter of the writing. The more-or-less arbitrary phonetics built into words beat out such basics as character, a verbal construct that isn’t covered by the “drama of the subject matter.” Nor is dialogue, whether tinny and stilted or fluid and natural. Nor is narrative structure. These are just a few fundamentals. But on lesser levels, Lutz’s argument also ignores impressive imagery (that isn’t simply sonorous), memorable metaphors, original phrasemaking free of aural ambitions, and—among still other elements—the overall rhythm of the writing. Instead writers are urged to figure out how to repeat arrangements of letters.
While sound is certainly important, and language in the proper hands has its own music, syllabic harmonies need not be trumpeted as though they were the foundation of good prose. “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” focuses on phonetic particulars all best learned after the basics have been mastered, which is much more difficult than it sounds (pun intended). Before we start breaking the rules, we should not only know them, we should know—as with math formulae—how to derive them. Lutz pushes too hard for things that the author should discover for herself—as she (or he) will if she is a true artist. And if she’s not, Lutz is just handing advanced weaponry to someone who doesn’t know how to use it.