Issue 51 contributor Johanna Droubay blogs about rhythm.
A week after my daughter, Della, was born, my parents flew in from Utah with a gift: loose pages of a book, a poem that my mom had written and that friends had illustrated for my new baby. And my mother wanted it bound. Immediately.
“I want her to get the rhythm in her head,” my mom said.
Meanwhile her granddaughter had never so much as opened her eyes except as a result of excessive disturbance. For the first two weeks of her life, we had to get Della completely naked and flick her feet to wake her up for feedings. And then we had to stroke her under her chin to remind her to suck. She wasn’t sick; she was sleepy. Reading to her seemed nutty.
At the same time, I understood. Not the binding or the timing of it all. But my mom’s concern for rhythm and passing it down. That meant something to me.
I care about the sound of my sentences sometimes more than anything. Following the sound instead of the sense can lead me to the real sense, or a new sense. But sound can also be misleading. Like Poe’s hideous heart, the beat of one’s own drum can drown out other important concerns: brevity, clarity, tone, meaning.
When I was just out of college writing for 10 cents a word at an alt newsweekly, it pained me to see the editor lop off the carefully tailored ends of my sentences, paragraphs and pieces. It ruins the rhythm, I thought and said. But if my editor couldn’t hear it, I had to assume my readers couldn’t either. She was right; I needed to be tight, clear, clean.
But one of the things I’ve learned since, something I learned long ago but had to unlearn and relearn, is that rhythm matters. The fact that I don’t know when or how I learned it originally speaks to its importance, its primacy.
Does a writer’s sense of rhythm have something to do with well-chosen bedtime stories and lullabies? The whoosh of the womb or the first pat of the heart four weeks after conception? Is it acquired and enhanced over a lifetime of reading? For my purposes, how do I pass it down? Can I? Do I want to? Is the joy of writing freely in one’s youth worth the pain of writing haltingly later on? Is there any hope that my child could be a different kind of writer?
As one who pays tribute to rhythm, I must answer no. If rhythm is “an ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak,” then as writers we might try to accept that our own recurrent weaknesses and failures are not fizzled-out melodies or tragic crescendos. They’re simply the downbeats.
Johanna Droubay is flattered that her personal essay “You Say You Want a Revolution” was included in issue 51 of Potomac Review. She is the editor of The Potomac Term, the alumni magazine of The Potomac School.