The Rhythm of Reading
For a child from an extended family that loved both children and books, there is a sensory rhythm built into reading, an indulgence of words, pages that turn with a satisfying swish (or, later, a delicate onionskin crinkle), the voices that go with warm laps. One of my particular childhood favorites was Dorothy Haas’s A Penny for Whiffles. Penny is a girl with copper colored hair, and that she was Penny-like in two senses at once was almost too much of a pleasure. Whiffles is the onomatopoetic pony who, without knowing it, has been searching for Penny all along. His gratifying name, such a pleasure to say, made me want to pet his velvety nose.
But it was really Dr. Seuss who formed my reading practice. According to my mother, a very reliable source, the first book I read was Hop on Pop. The very words bounce, hopping along, the final plosive setting up the spring of the next word: “Hop, Pop. We like to hop. We like to hop on top of Pop.” There is a similar pleasure in the long list of names that makes up most of “Too Many Daves,” from The Sneetches and Other Stories: Mrs. McCave, having foolishly given all of her sons the same name, wishes that she had named “…one of them Oliver Boliver Butt…” The childish giggle of “Butt” is set up beautifully by the trio of dactyls: ONE of them OLiver BOLiver…which ends with that sudden bam, a double (ex)plosive of B running right into TT. How would any reader not leap for joy—or hop, at least?
“Style is a very simple matter,” says Virginia Woolf; “it is all rhythm.” The rhythms she means are polyrhythms, accents on words that have to draw out the motion between ideas, though neither of these is quite different from the other: sounds and storylines and concepts must all make music, entangle and dance together. Dr. Seuss set me up not only for Woolf, but for Anne Carson, who had been another book-loving child; she has said that she wanted to eat the pages from a lusciously illustrated book of the lives of saints. In Eros the Bittersweet, Carson dazzlingly analyzes Sappho’s fragment 105a: “…dactyls (in lines 1 and 2) slow and elongate to spondees (in line 3) as the apple begins to look farther and farther away.” I understood Carson immediately: Mrs. McCave had taught me how; and had taught me, more importantly, how delightful and physical and potent this understanding should be.
Gradually, of course, reading had to teach me to write. Grand Junction’s Central High School is no longer at the edge of a cornfield, but it was when I was a student there. Probably students no longer get half days in August and September to help with the peach harvest, either, but they did then. I cannot imagine what optimism inspired Mrs. Virginia LaCrone, an experienced teacher, to assign James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues to such a group. Still, always happy to encounter another author, I sat down with the text.
“I read about it in the paper, on the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” Each sentence starts, and builds, and goes through it once again, all triplets. Each triplet says terrible, then maybe, then again. “It” is the narrator’s brother, caught in a drug bust. Sonny’s Blues is famously a “jazz story,” and Sonny, the brother with the drugs, is a jazz musician. But the music is older than jazz. “Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. … Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new.” The least musical member of a sprawling and musically literate family, I nonetheless knew how to listen to the blues. Baldwin showed me that one could write them.
Armed with this knowledge, I turned to the songs that lurked in other texts. Sometimes not so subtly; Finnegans Wake might not rollick as obviously as “Finnegan’s Wake,” but the Irish accent comes through just as well. There is no way to get much past “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” without picking up some echo of Dublin. The meaning was a bit of a struggle, but Anthony Burgess helped me through that with A Shorter Finnegans Wake—though, dispiritingly, I could persuade no one else at Central to be as entranced with the language.
I didn’t need to persuade anyone else to read Faulkner; he was assigned. I wandered in awe through Yoknapatawpha county. I started with The Sound and the Fury, and somehow, keeping the beat under the music of the voices, in Caddy’s singsong soothing, Benjy’s layered repetitions, their mother’s urgent abruptness, Jason’s razor edged rhetoric, was the voice of Faulkner. I still don’t know how he does it.
But he does it well. “Yesterday I sold a pair of peacocks,” writes Flannery O’Connor to Elizabeth Bishop, “the first time I have sold any. These people showed up in a long white car, the woman in short shorts. They obviously had plenty of money that they weren’t used to. …The man was a structural engineer. He said he had a friend who was a writer in Mississippi and I said who was that. He said, ‘His name is Bill Faulkner. I don’t know if he’s any good or not but he’s a mighty nice fellow.’ I told him he was right good.” O’Connor’s power of acerbic observation without condescension, and her willingness to admit right goodness when she finds it, could only come across in her contagious Georgia drawl, consistent across her letters and her stories.
I fell in love not only with the sound of words, but also with the choreography of concepts. It was the latter that drew me into philosophy, a rather austere field not much prone to stylish rhythms. It is my job to try to make sense of the conceptual, to sneak my students past the clunk of the prose, almost hoping that they won’t even notice. But every once in a while, I slip in something beautiful, so that we can listen, and (ever so quietly) we can leap for joy. Or at least hop.
Karmen MacKendrick is Professor of Philosophy at Le Moyne College. She is the author, most recently, of The Matter of Voice: Sensual Soundings, as well Word Made Skin: Figuring Language at the Surface of Flesh; Fragmentation and Memory: Meditations on Christian Doctrine; and Divine Enticement: Theological Seductions (all Fordham University Press.)
The image at the top of this post is by Takahiro Fujita