Writing with Sound * Writing by Instinct

The dictionary is laced with technical terms for specific literary forms and rhythms. But unless one truly listens and absorbs the different way rhythms and sound affect us physically and emotionally, the technical terms are lifeless.  Randall Jarrell’s novella for children, THE BAT-POET, contains a wonderful scene that honors the value of listening and instinct.

“Why, I like,” said the mockingbird. “Technically it’s quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme’s particularly effective.”

The bat poet said: “It is?”

“Oh yes,” said the mockingbird. “And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short.”

The bat said blankly: “Two feet short?”

“It’s two feet short,” said the mockingbird a little impatiently. “The next-to-the-last line’s iambic pentameter, and the last line’s iambic trimeter.”

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice: “An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable; the wear one comes first. That last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has ten; when you shorten the last line like that it gets the effect of the night holding it’s breath.”

“I didn’t know that,” the bat said. “I just made it like holding your breath.”

THE BAT-POET by Randall Jarrell. Illus. by Maurice Sendak. Macmillan, 1966.

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