I’ve written several times in the last few months about style and especially about the crucial importance of style to effective communication today (see “Writing as performance”). In an age of instant and constant information bombardment, what we attend to—what we can even try to attend to—is that which gets and holds our attention. So far from being the forgotten canon of rhetoric that style (along with delivery) became in the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, it is now front and center of what it means to be able to “get a point across.”
I was thinking about style a week or so ago when I was in Eisenstadt, Austria, to attend a Kronos Quartet concert at the Esterhazy Palace, home to many of Haydn’s compositions. In this truly magnificent setting, one so ornate and gilded that its beauty could easily have drawn attention away from the music, I watched and listened as Kronos made the space their own. Their eclectic and deeply international program, which included works by artists from Serbia, Mali, Canada and the high arctic, Scotland, China, and Azerbaijan, brought together rhythmic traditions from around the world: in one piece, the cellist stomped her foot at irregular intervals; in another, the violist tapped an ankle wrapped in bells; in yet another, the rhythms were punctuated by drumming. Like the rest of the audience, I was caught up in these rhythms, so much so that I felt I was drifting above the palace floor, keeping time with the quartet. I came back to earth with a rhythmic bang during the two encores: Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and the iconic bluegrass “Orange Blossom Special.” Talk about rhythm: I could not keep my feet from tapping along.
Reflecting back on the concert, I remembered a statement made by Eric Havelock, a great historian and theorist of ancient Greece: rhythm, he said in one of his works, is at the base of all human pleasure. I have often asked students to think about that claim and to see how it applies in their own lives. We talk about the rhythms of the year, of the day, of our lives; we talk about music as a universal language of rhythms; we talk about sexual pleasures – and much else. Usually, students begin skeptical of Havelock’s comment but end up thinking he has at least an arguable point.
And rhythm, of course, is at the basis of writing as well, as a UC Irvine student surely intuited when he asked me, “How can I make my sentences sing?” Writers make sentences sing through word choice, of course, through images and strong verbs. But beyond those characteristics lie the structure of the sentences, the rhythm that they establish, break, re-establish. Students today have a strong sense of rhythm’s importance: rap, hip hop, spoken word poetry—all deal in rhythms that make the poetry “sing” and make us remember it. Some have clearly perfected the rhythmically effective Tweet (though many have NOT). It’s up to teachers of writing, I think, to help students see and understand the importance of rhythm—and reading everything they write is one good way to begin. And once they start playing around with rhythms, trying out various “beats” to their sentences, I think they will love it. My bet is that their writing will get stronger as well!