Poetic Prose: Music

I don’t have a concise definition for music in writing, but I tend to think of it as a pleasing combination of syllable sounds and meaning. It’s heavily dependent on word choice and word order, and the richest music is enhanced by metaphor and imagery. Music is what makes poetry poetic, but there’s no rule that says prose can’t be poetic, too.

Researchers at the University of Exeter recently published a study in which they compared the brain’s response to prose and poetry. The following is from the university’s website:

In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection. (1)

(I highly recommend reading the brief University of Exeter article in its entirety, because it contains details of how the study was conducted, along with a caution that “This was a preliminary study.”)

A post at Your Universe Online says:

The team also found that emotionally charged writing activated areas of the brain which are known to respond to music. Predominantly on the right side, these regions had previously been shown to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” feeling caused by an emotional response to music. (2)

Perhaps musical writing is music, as far as the brain is concerned. At a minimum, musical writing engages readers’ minds in a more complex fashion than non-musical writing. Does this explain, in part, my emotional connection to books like The Book ThiefThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Shine Shine Shine? And how, as a writer, do I add music to my fiction?

Here’s the first sentence of The White Deer by James Thurber:

If you should walk and wind and wander far enough on one of those afternoons in April when smoke goes down instead of up, and nearby things sound far away and far things near, you are more than likely to come at last to the enchanted forest that lies between the Moonstone Mines and Centaurs Mountain. (3)

The opening lilts through a series of syllables that start with soft sounds and end sharply: “… walk and wind and wander far enough … .” Alliteration is part of the magic, but there’s more than alliteration at work here. It can’t be read aloud without falling into rhythm.

The rhythm changes with “in April,” becoming staccato: “… smoke goes down instead of up … .” Now syllables begin sharply as well. And the words sound like what they mean: “goes down” has a sinking inflection and “up” make the voice rise. The same is true of “nearby things sound far away,” where the words trail off with a train of fading syllables then recover with the crisper syllables of “far things near.”

The images are surreal, setting the scene for the sentence’s eventual arrival in an enchanted forest. Each image is more strange and whimsical than the last, until:

There’s even a tale, first told by minstrels in the medieval time, that rabbits here can tip their heads as men now tip their hats, removing them with their paws and putting them back again. (4)

Intense rhythmic elements continue throughout the book, complete with a few tongue-twisting sections:

“My father and my brothers and I pursued a deer,” said Clode, “which against the wall of Centaurs Mountain underwent a marvelous and mortifying metamorphosis. I am a little touchy on the topic, too, so do not turn your tongue to taunts.”

“He does not turn his tongue,” said Jorn. “He twists your own, to ‘m’s’ and ‘t’s.’ ”

“And ‘w’s,’ ” said the wizard, “as you shall see.”

“Try twice that trick on Tlode,” said the King, with great dignity, “my mousey man of magic, and we will wid these wids of woozards.” King Clode made a royal gesture of arrogance, authority, and austerity, while his sons stared at him in astonishment. (5)

The temptation to read aloud is overwhelming, and the audiobook for The White Deer is the most exquisite recording in my collection.

The White Deer is a masterful example of how word choice and order create music, but the book’s music is not wholly dependent on sound. The imagery is bright and inventive, and the metaphors are layered and slippery. No detail is overlooked. No matter how many times I read The White Deer (or listen to it) I always find something new to love in its pages.

Whenever I get frustrated with my fiction, convinced that too much poetry has crept in, I return to The White Deer. After reading it, I realize how leaden my pages are, how barren of music. My feeble phrases gasp and wheeze. Should I accidentally write a musical paragraph, it looks out of place. I make the mistake of seeing it as “too much.” And, while some stories and genres require more subtle music than others, the problem is never too much poetry in my prose. It is always too little.


1. “Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove.” Medical School, News. University of Exeter. 9 October 2013. Web. 29 October 2013.

2. Flowers, April. “This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Poetry.” Your Universe Online, redOrbit.com. 10 October 2013. Web. 30 October 2013.

3. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 3.

4. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 4.

5. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 16.


Mushroom Aug 21

If you pluck one of the ten thousand toadstools that grow in the emerald grass at the edge of the wonderful woods, it will feel as heavy as a hammer in your hand, but if you let it go it will sail away over the trees like a tiny parachute, trailing black and purple stars. (pg 1-2)

Mushroom Aug 21


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