My father loved the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences. He had stock phrases that he would repeat on specific occasions, more for the sheer delight of saying them than for any inherent purpose. My mother’s musings about what to make for dinner would be met by the suggestion of “pheasant under glass”; if she wondered what to wear to an event, my father’s perennial response was “your blue chiffon,” which I do not believe was ever part of her wardrobe.  I quite often enjoyed these pronouncements and the flair with which they were delivered, and whenever I laughed at hearing one of them, my father would lament that he was nothing more than “an endless source of amusement.”

It was the choice of words that amused me, though, even more than my father’s presentation of them – the progression of vowels and consonants in succession, the music they made. Because these stock phrases did come to seem like song lyrics to me, with their own contour and melody – my father’s own brand of unique snippets of poetry. I learned that love of words from him, and sometimes in childhood I would spend days with a word bouncing around in my head like some kind of prosaic ear-worm. Juxtaposition. Melanoma. Annihilate. And sometimes the saying of the word out loud – the repetition of it – rendered it ultimately meaningless, reduced to only a collection of sounds that was still delightful in and of itself. Watermelon. Rutabaga. Wallet. This exploration of the shapes of words developed concurrently with my discovery of and education in music, and the connection of each to the other has informed my awareness of both ever since. Because good writing should have its own music, whether read aloud or encountered on the page.  Sentences need to roll off the mind like melodies – one gorgeous, exquisitely-placed word after another – and likewise good music should always inform, affect, narrate, even when it does so wordlessly.

My own delight in the sound of words in the air and the music of them in my mind is matched when I encounter others who feel the same.  The venerable Irish poet Seamus Heaney died recently, and he was probably best known for a poem entitled ‘Digging,’ wherein he captures vignettes of his father and grandfather as they tilled sod with spades, comparing it to his own vocation of digging for words. Lines like “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge” are masterfully written and supremely evocative. Because we can see and hear it, can’t we? The hot summer’s day, the smell of upturned earth, the slicing sound of the spade as it cuts into the grass. The power of these words, so carefully chosen, make the vision happen, and the rhythm of those repeated consonants (“squelch and slap,” “curt cuts”) make it into music. This is good poetry, making us love the sound of words, as it should.

My father, in addition to developing and repeating his own stock phrases, would quite often drop a line or two of a Shakespeare play into conversation, or a few words from a hymn that he had learned during his (subsequently-spurned) Anglican upbringing. Sometimes he did this without warning, just because they occured to him – beautiful little non-sequiturs placed to make us stop and consider the beauty of the words that he had chosen to share. In my angry teenage years I found this annoying. The “what the hell are you talking about, Dad?” factor overrided the moment that he was trying to create. I’m sure that that hurt him, and made him long for the days when I would laugh and delight in his words. Well, I’m with you now, Dad. I wish you were here to talk.

As a bonus, here are a couple of videos that celebrate the sounds of words.  First, Stephen Fry’s Kinetic Typography, and then the lovely and ridiculous Bulbous Bouffant. 


59 thoughts on “Digging Words

  1. Pingback: Digging Words | SandyBottomKids

  2. I inherited a love of words from my mother; their shapes, sounds and colours as well as their meanings. I hope too that I will pass it to my son. You express these familiar sentiments really beautifully – so thank you!

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