Technique in art . . . has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity. —John Barth
The first time I was in graduate school I dreaded one classmate’s “seminar day.” Though he interpreted literature sensitively, imaginatively, and profoundly, the way he talked followed the peculiar pattern of a mantra. When he spoke, um, he would pause, um, no matter what, um, to insert the um, in the right place… um. For me, those “ums” became tarred lines on an Ohio highway after driving all night. Five minutes and I veered onto the shoulder of a coma.
This anecdote doesn’t make me proud—my classmate had something to say, he spoke as he did, and I couldn’t hear past his ums. I’d be more tolerant now because I suspect students sometimes hear me the same way. We are together nearly every day, and they must recognize, consciously or subconsciously, my rhythms and verbal ticks. Some may have worked out imitations or discussed my mantras with classmates. A few, even in October, may already pine for liberation.
The human voice possesses music quite separate from content. Robert Frost talked about “The sound of sense,” the meaning audible through a door even when you have no true idea of the conversation inside. A fingerprint of diction and syntax betrays us, communicating, “This is how this brain assembles language. Here are the pieces it makes of thinking.”
Some scholars easily identify writers’ prose and can know Henry James or Charlotte Bronte at a thousand paces. I recognize Shakespeare, Hemingway, maybe Jane Austen, but the prose I know best is my own. What I hear is what I do, what I am. My phrasing follows patterns once hidden and now apparent. And I worry that, the more I refine my style, the more my prose reaches an impossible, inaudible pitch.
As I write I sometimes feel the way I do in class when I read poems aloud and try to take them on anew. I fight what they want of me but inevitably fall back into their meter and rhyme. My voice soon follows the tide of their parallelism, settles on end words and surfs whatever wants to rise and fall. Where lies escape?
In Henry V, a boy accompanies the morally questionable Pistol to the wars in France and wonders at Pistol’s gall, concluding, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’” I hope he’s joking because I hate to think my own voice is so empty, not the sum of character or experience but the practice of echoes, words restrained within tight sentences. I don’t want to believe style is the only greatness.
Perhaps the heartfelt overflows the vessel of its expression, and all a person needs is sincerity and desire. Maybe I’d be happier with a barbaric yawp, an inarticulate cry in the wilderness. I might say more without practice or study or pattern. I should be an amnesiac.
If my mantric-um graduate school classmate is still speaking as he did, he may not have traveled far in teaching. His words quickly became just words, and no content seemed to make his voice compelling. That I’ve made it all this way might mean I’m easier to hear, but when I hear myself speak or write, his specter rears. Every time I open my mouth, I hope for something new, a sound that will take its own form and step like a foal onto fresh ground.