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The Music in Prose
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The Music in Prose is a regular feature of the TreeHouseLetter. The idea for this came from my work on music and language, considering just what it is about the writing or prose that makes it sing or stick with me.
Ever wonder why a song or story stays in your head and you find yourself going back to it again and again? The language in fiction and nonfiction is called prose and this distinguishes it from poetry or verse. For this feature, I share what touched me about the prose, the music in a particular passage or work, and why.
This helps us have a richer and deeper experience as readers, and as writers it helps us recognize the beauty in the prose. And that, helps me to become a better writer. Maybe, even a better person.
The valentine canine I adopted is doing well and sleeps a lot, for now. I wanted to end the week on that note, about love, since it came up in the last letter; Erich Fromm made the argument that love is an art, a deliberate practice.
We set up the dog’s routine with frequent trips outside to house-train him and to play. We shower him with love and treats, so that the shelter animal who was cowering in the corner is changing into a sweet and curious pet. If you can see your way to accepting the premise that love is an art, then like all art, love requires discipline, concentration, and patience.
Further, love is something you can only give. You cannot get love, if you will, like getting butter at the grocer, or baubles at the jeweler. That is a hard distinction for me to learn and accept because the lucky (or at least those who chose their parents well) grew up with love, or grew up being loved. It is natural, then, to believe that we should simply BE loved in life. That’s not how it is though. The only love you can be sure about is the love you give.
Carson McCullers writes of love in her classic story, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Set in rural Georgia, she weaves together a cast of misfits and a love triangle. In the triangle, each loves another, and no love is requited. Amelia is the cafe owner and her short-lived marriage was a sham, and her ex-husband Marvin ends up in prison. The hunchback Lymon shows up on the scene and claims he is Amelia’s distant cousin.
The Music in the Prose
Here’s a passage from the story. Pay attention to the sentences, the local color, the word choice, and the development of her ideas on love.
Now some explanation is due for all this behavior. The time has come to speak about love. For Miss Amelia loved Cousin Lymon. So much was clear to everyone. They lived in the same house together and were never seen apart. Therefore, according to Mrs. MacPhail, a warty-nosed old busybody who is continually moving her sticks of furniture from one part of the front room to another; according to her and to certain others, these two were living in sin. If they were related, they were only a cross between first and second cousins, and even that could in no way be proved. Now, of course, Miss Amelia was a powerful blunderbuss of a person, more than six feet tall — and Cousin Lymon a weakly little hunchback reaching only to her waist. But so much the better for Mrs. Stumpy MacPhail and her cronies, for they and their kind glory in conjunctions which are ill-matched and pitiful. So let them be. The good people thought that if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone. All sensible people agreed in their opinion about this conjecture — and their answer was a plain, flat top. What sort of thing, then, was this love?
First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. *
So Where’s the Music in McCullers’ Prose?
Amelia loved her cousin, as family is my own conjecture, but that doesn’t stop the gossip hound Mrs. MacPhail and later Mrs. Stumpy MacPhail, who moves her furniture around for fun. Know anyone like that? The moving of furniture is fine, sure enough, lots of us have done that; but McCullers calls her furniture sticks, which resembles its owner, a woman of little substance.
The author loves her semicolons. The opening line of the ballad lets us know what kind of place she’s writing about and includes a semicolon. To understand the music in a her prose–just why the writing sings and sticks with us–study the use of punctuation as part of the machinery of the sentence and how that delivers or carries the message.
The town itself is dreary; not much is there but the cotton mill.
The artful use of the semicolon also completes the sentence about the sticks of furniture with the only natural conclusion of such a person: these two are living in sin. McCullers then lets the reader know that the good people and the sensible people left it to God and so it goes in such a town, where your business is their business and the trade is plied by the best of busy-bodies.
The first paragraph ends with a question about this odd pair, the hunchback and the blunderbuss. Those are nouns and the meaning thrown onto these nouns are the modifiers, little weakly hunchback and powerful blunderbuss. Readers could empathize with a hunchback and feel for him, and a reader may mistake the blunderbuss as big and dumb. The noun choice is the mot juste, the exact right word, and coupled with the modifiers, gives the characters depth.
“What sort of thing, then, was this love?” McCullers uses these eight humble words to end a paragraph with commas in the middle to engage the reader and put emphasis on her ideas of love. I lift my eyes from the page, gaze out the window and consider this once vibrant hub of activity and what was and will become a desolate and emotional wasteland. Love does that; it can transform a place as well as destroy it.
Next, McCullers does what only an author who knows something of what she speaks can do. She begins her treatise on love over the next page. It’s powerful in the telling and easy to read, but hard to digest. She writes, The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-handed, and given to evil habits.
It is foreshadow, this bit about love, because it’s a third into the story and we know how it’s going to go down in this sad cafe. Or we think so, but McCullers will shock you with the climax (spoiler alert) which is a spectacle of fists and blood, in an era with the most unlikely of scenes, a woman in a boxing match. Back to this paragraph on love, the author concludes. The value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.
Which returns to the idea of love as a practice and the idea that one can only give love. McCullers continues to say that “most of us would rather love than be loved” and explains why that is. As a reader, I’ve my eyes glued to the train in this story because I think I know where it’s headed.
This music in the prose comes from McCullers’ skillful use of rhythm, which pulses and pulls with its sentence length and variety, the phrasing, word choice, and local color. It’s also building and taking me on a journey.
There’s a path where she and I are walking and she tells me about love and how it works, preparing me for what’s coming. And, I recognize the truth in what she’s saying, trusting her to take me. And when I get there, sad as it may be, broken and bereft of its former glory, I realize she’s taken me to a place worth going.
The full text is provided in the site link (below) if you wish to read The Ballad of a Sad Cafe.
*The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers, 1951. Full Text of story here. The excerpt above starts on page 15.