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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Rhythm as a Metaphor for Presence in Prose Fiction
Rhythm as a Metaphor for Presence in Prose Fiction
Author: Eliza Robertson
Eliza Robertson discusses the topic in relation to her first novel.


This essay explores the concept of rhythm as a metaphor for presence in literary fiction. To begin, I identify and unpick the prevailing metaphor for presence: voice. Next, I draw upon Jacques Derrida’s critique of Saussurian linguistics to unravel the historic veneration of presence in theories of speech and writing. The third section explores the distinction between conventional and creative metaphors and pitches rhythm as an alternative, more “vital” metaphor for presence in literary prose. Once I lay the theoretical brickwork, I turn to my own creative practice with a discussion of rhythm in relation to my first novel, Demi-Gods. Though I share Derrida’s findings that presence is not necessarily superior to absence, I strive for something like presence in my own work. That is: I aim to produce “vital” writing by way of “animated” language and “lively” characters. To bridge this apparent inconsistency, I argue that vital writing describes a process rather than an end point. I offer the gerund “presenting” as a way to articulate presence as practice, or a work in progress, rather than an objective good on which to hinge a hierarchy of expression.


Keywords: rhythm, prose fiction, creative writing, voice, metaphor, Jacques Derrida, presence, deconstruction, semiotics, Demi-Gods


“Because rhythm is no longer, even if certain philistines haven’t realized it, the alternation of the tick-tock on the cheek of the metronomic metrician. But rhythm is the language-organisation of the continuum of which we are made. With all the otherness which founds our identity. Come in, metricians, it merely requires a poem for you to lose your feet.”

— Henri Meschonnic, “The Rhythm Party Manifesto” (2011: 165)

So often, in writing, we speak in terms of life. It is the goal of literary realism: to write life. To create characters that feel vital to us, humans the reader will mourn once the book ends. We choose our verbs carefully to avoid “dead” prose, to capture some tremor of living in our sentences, even when we write criticism. In his “Rhythm Party Manifesto,” Henri Meschonnic claims that “…critical activity is vital. Not destructive. No, constructive—constructive of subjects (164). The theoretical word for life or vitality, as demonstrated by Ferdinand de Saussure and later Jacques Derrida, is “presence.” And how do we cultivate presence in fiction—that is, the felt presence of characters and their stories? Through a sort of textual ventriloquism: by throwing our voices.

This essay begins by unpicking what we talk about when we talk about “voice.” From here, I will draw from Derrida’s deconstruction of the presence-absence binary, which was advanced by Saussure in the early twentieth century. The next section of the essay analyses metaphors as constructive, rather than merely reflective, rhetorical devices, and pitches rhythm as an alternative, more “vital” metaphor for presence in prose fiction. At this point, I will turn to my own creative process and how I aim to capture presence in the rhythms of my first novel, Demi-Gods (Robertson: 2017).

A note on methodology: though I draw upon Derrida in this essay, I do not aspire to provide a deconstructionist account of presence in prose fiction. I have approached my study of rhythm through intentionally “eclectic” channels—drawing from different theories to articulate ideas I am pursuing as a creative writer. This technique suits the framework of the creative-critical project, which encourages an organic dialogue to unfold between the creative work and critical research, rather than predetermining a single source text or thinker. That said, I have found Derrida’s deconstructions helpful in understanding the notion of presence in literary fiction, as well as Geoffrey Bennington’s interpretation of his ideas, which I have also drawn upon. As Bennington clarifies, the goal of deconstruction is not refutation, “but to cross [the] text and leave in it the trace or wake of this crossing” (1999:63). Though I am not a deconstructionist, I too would like to “cross” these concepts and imagine them as bridges that link and support my experience of rhythm in prose fiction as a writer.


On Voice

Over my five years of fiction workshops, the term “voice” has been ubiquitous. I have heard it outside the classroom too, in literary reviews, endorsements, newspaper ads and book fairs. Often, voice constitutes entire chapters of creative writing guides, like Andrew Cowan’s, The Art of Writing Fiction (2011), or the similarly titled The Art of Fiction (1994) by David Lodge. If not comprising an entire chapter, the term will be discussed in sections on point of view and character, or peppered throughout the book, as in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1984), Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (2007), or Zen in the Art of Writing (1990) by Ray Bradbury. In an essay that ultimately defends voice as a critical term, Peter Elbow acknowledges how commonly the word is used in a “loose and celebratory way,” as a “warm fuzzy word” people apply if the writing has some virtue they cannot articulare (1994:2). The examples in publishing copy are rife: Penguin Random House introduces Jenny Zhang as “a fresh new voice” (2017). An endorsement for Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties praises the author’s “voracious imagination and extraordinary voice …” (Gay 2017). Simon and Schuster announced Miranda July’s debut in 2008 as “spectacularly original and compelling voice” (2008). Cormac McCarthy paradoxically “gives voice to the unspeakable” in a New York Times Review (Maslin: 2015). Other popular voice clichés include: “new voice,” “writer’s voice,” “found her voice,” “yet to find her voice,” “loud voice,” (especially if the narrator speaks in dialect like Irvine Welsh), “quiet voice,” (if the prose is spare or unadorned), “authentic voice,” “unconvincing voice.” These disparate and often hyperbolic uses blur the term as a viable critical concept. In the Zhang and July examples, the word voice implies a “spirit” or zeitgeist. In writing workshops and how-to guides, the word voice means everything from the author’s individual style (by way of syntax, diction, punctuation and tone), as well as narrative persona (observable in the first person narrator or other point of view protagonist), and the character voices we hear in dialogue. Before I continue, I will say that I use the word voice myself. It is a helpful term when used mindfully. Voice describes the tone of characters in fiction; it describes the mood of a piece, and an author’s signature style. However, our reliance on the term is problematic for four reasons.

First, many reviewers and writers have forgotten that “voice” is a metaphor. Voice is the sound produced by a person’s larynx, released by the mouth. Fictional characters do not have larynges. Once we forget the comparison is an analogy, the connection loses its potency. We use the phrase casually and without thought. Second, our fixation on voice encourages idolization of the “writer’s voice,” which is a fiction. Not every writer has a voice they must find like a stylistic spirit guide. Characters have voices; narrators have voices; novels and stories do not have voices, but characters and narrators with voices. (Novels and stories may however have different styles or moods.) When new writers are encouraged to find their voice, it implies there is only one style for them. Such advice promotes complacency and monotony over a body of work. Third, because we forget voice is a metaphor, the abbreviation enables imprecise thinking. We describe a short story as “a voice piece” (a phrase that appears in workshop more often than you would think) when we mean any number of things, like “Scotch dialect,” “purple prose,” “experimental language,” “overbearing narrator,” “compelling narrator.” Finally, over-reliance on the word voice enables a fixation on utterance, which omits the utterance-less features of literary fiction (the pacing of whitespace, punctuation, etc.) Particularly, the voice-metaphor excludes texts that reach beyond words, as I attempt in my own creative practice, which I will discuss later in this essay.

In “White Mythology,” Derrida states that a good metaphor for Aristotle “has the virtues of putting something before our eyes, making a picture, having a lively effect; and these virtues are regularly associated with the notion of Energeia” (1974: 39). However, a metaphor only packs energy if the resemblance is not identity. “Mimesis brings pleasure only if it allows us to see in action what is nevertheless not given in action itself, but only in its very similar double” (39). Derrida describes this gap between mimed and mimer as an energy-carrying absence, a “mysterious break… that creates stories and scenes” (10). Thus when we forget the gap between the literal word “voice” and its meaning in literary discourse, the metaphor deflates. Anne Danielsen conceives rhythm as “an interaction of something sounding and something not sounding” (2006: 46-47). If the interaction between sounding and not sounding, or presence and absence, signifier and signified, could be experienced as a break (not-sounding) and a continuous flow (re-sounding), the same might be observed for metaphor. The gap between mimed and mimer invokes delight— as a parody of the Queen invokes delight, when an actor identical to Elizabeth II would not. Perhaps we experience this schism between mimed and mimer as a break and continuous flow of meaning— in the same way that our mind links the cuts between film frames. The parody of the queen makes us laugh because of a) the gap, but also b) the recognition, which stems from pre-existing concepts of the royal family. The break between actor and queen does not distract us, but sustains a flow of meaning we have already entertained or observed elsewhere. For Derrida, we ought to identify the original inscription in a metaphor and “restore the palimpsest” (1974: 10). He quotes Nietzsche’s, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”:

What then is the truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms… truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal (1896).

Thus it is in the difference— the space between the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor— that we find energy and meaning.

As I have stated, voice is a helpful metaphor in discussions of style—one I use myself. However, the word’s ubiquitousness in both institutional and commercial contexts has diluted its potency as a critical term. To restore the “concentrate” of its meaning, Elbow identifies five types of voice in written texts: audible voice, dramatic voice, recognizable or distinctive voice, voice with authority, and finally, resonant voice or presence. The first four types of voice in texts are straightforward and do not pose critical problems I wish to explore here. However, as Elbow admits, the notion of presence as resonant voice is swampy. He explains that:

At certain lucky or achieved moments, writers or speakers do manage to find words which seem to capture the rich complexity of the unconscious; or words which, though they do not express or articulate everything that is in the unconscious, nevertheless seem to resonate with or have behind them the unconscious as well as the conscious… It is words of this sort that we experience as resonant—and through them we have a sense of presence with the writer” (1994: 18).

The question to the writer is not “how sincere are you?” but rather, “how much of yourself did you manage to get behind the words?” (20). We find a text resonant when we recognize the lived experience behind it, a body humming or beating beneath the page. But whose body is this? The writer’s? The character’s? A character inspired by the writer’s mother? A film the writer saw? A poem? The question of author identity is not a problem I will address here, but it does contribute to the murk of resonant voice as presence in writing. I would like to return to what I said above, about bodies humming, or beating, resounding beneath the text. The word “resonate” comes from the Latin resonare, or sound again, literally: re-sound. I agree with Peter Elbow that some accomplished writers achieve this effect in their work; it is a quality I aspire toward. However, and this is my primary argument in this essay: I attribute that “resonance” to rhythm. Recall Danielsen’s definition of rhythm as “an interaction of something sounding and something not sounding.” That is— the gap, or spacing, between sounding and resounding. In his essay, “How to Write,” William Carlos Williams states that poets are “in touch with ‘voices,’ but …the voices are the past, the depths of our very beings. It is the deeper…portions of the personality speaking, the middle brain, the nerves, the glands, the very muscles and bones of the body itself speaking” (1976: 98). Can that depth be contained in our vocal cords? When we speak of our bodies beneath the text, of our middle brains and glands and muscles, are we still speaking about voice? Or do we mean heartbeats, breath, rhythm?

“Presence” in Speech and Writing

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a sign is a sign; as Geoffrey Bennington paraphrases, the sign “stands in for the thing in its absence, representing it in view of its return …” (1999: 24). In Cours de Linguistique Générale (1959), Saussure names this sign the signifier, which is distant enough from the signified of the thing in itself, the referent, that it functions as a delegate. Historically, philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau and Hegel have interpreted graphic signifiers (written word) as the transcription of phonic signifiers (spoken word), and thus presumed writing, as signs of signs, to be “derivative,” and “exterior.” In this view, writing functions to represent speech; it is a “signifier of the first signifier, representation of the self-present voice, of the immediate, natural, and direct signification of the meaning” (Derrida 1976:30). Saussure retains a traditional definition of writing, inherited from Plato and Aristotle, which does not consider non-alphabetic languages such as Chinese, or indeed non-linguistic writing, such as algebra and musical scores. For Saussure, “language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first” (1959: 23). Derrida questions the workings of that hierarchy: “this factum of phonetic writing is massive; it commands our entire culture and science…Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence” (1976: 30-31). Derrida describes the condemnation of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus: it is “the intrusion of an artful technique, a forced entry of a totally original sort, an archetypal violence: eruption of the outside within the inside, breaching into the interiority of the soul.” Speech, nearer to the realm of ideas, acquires the status of the soul, whereas writing, “the letter, the sensible inscription, has been considered by Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit…” (35). Writing inverts the “natural” relationship between the soul, mind, and body. It veils language, allows us to hide behind our words or write without showing our faces. For Saussure, writing is a “garment of perversion and debauchery, a dress of corruption and disguise…” The “natural bond” of the signified to the phonic signifier has been compromised and inverted “by the original sin of writing” (1959: 35). Indeed, the metaphors embedded in our discourse reflect this notion of writing as corporeal and “fallen.” We write down, jot down, scribble down notes at the same time that we speak out, talk to. We say body of an essay or argument, body of work; when we parse sentences, we dissect clauses into parts of speech. (Interestingly, speech remains the dominant metaphor here, though parsing is a grammar exercise that occurs primarily on the page, like mathematics.) If we employ a comparable set of metaphors to describe spoken word, it is temporal rather than spatial— the “duration” of a speech or talk, rather than “body.” Saussure hoped his science of language would “recover the natural—that is, the simple and original—relationships between speech and writing” and “restore its absolute youth and the purity of its origin (35).

Derrida subverted the hierarchy of signified over signifier by deconstructing the distinction between them. After all, “the signified is just a signifier put in a certain position by other signifiers” (1976: 31). That is, “every signifier functions by referring to other signifiers, without one ever arriving at a signified” (33). If we encounter a foreign word, or signifier we do not recognize, we look it up in the dictionary. What do we find there? Not the signified, or meaning of the word in itself, but more signifiers. Further, the repetition of a signifier will vary its sound or appearance by differences in accent, tone and writing style. We recognize signs despite these discrepancies, which implies the “sameness” through repetitions must be an “ideal-ity”— “the signifier is thus never purely or essentially sensible, even at the level of its phonological or graphological description” (32). The identity of the sign is ensured only by its difference from other signs and concepts; thus the “matter or stuff from which it seemed that signifiers were cut out, as it were, disappears from the essential definition of the sign,” which undermines the tendency of linguistics to privilege voice over writing (33).

To return to our bodies, speech signifies life more than writing. When two people talk in real time, they are necessarily alive and forming words with their tongues. Writing, by contrast, is inherently elegiac; these words represent me in my absence, and will do so after my death. This fact leads Bennington (1999) to write that his “mortality… is thus inscribed in everything [he] inscribes.” Further, he (and I) write in the absence of you, “because you are far away… and could be dead before my text reaches you” (51). Every sign necessitates the possibility of its repetition or reiteration, otherwise it would not be a sign. Because of this necessity, the “present presentation of meaning” (for instance, the sentence I am typing right now), is always shadowed by the possibility of its reproduction (the sentence you are reading right now.) By virtue of the fact that we write and speak in signs, the difference between the original expression and its repetition, and therefore between presence and non-presence, has already begun to soften. You may read this sentence, the one I am currently typing, again and again in your “present,” which may be weeks or years from my present; “the blink of the present instant (the Augenblick) is thus haunted from the start by a past and a future” (69). It is impossible to reconcile the privilege of presence in metaphysical thought with the necessity of a sign’s reiteration. The traditional notion of ideality rests on the idea of infinite progress, and the supposition that truth is the objective expression of “an infinite and immortal rational consciousness.” However, “the iterability of the sign in general, without which there would be no ideality, implies, through its indifference to whether I am alive or dead, the finitude of any subject or consciousness, and the originary possibility of representation and fiction…which forbids any discourse, even that of philosophy, from being essentially directed by truth” (70). To highlight the underpinning theme of metaphysics (and the dualism between writing and speech) it is worth drawing attention to two logical moments outlined by Bennington. First, of presence: “of the world to a gaze, of a consciousness to its own inspection, of a meaning to a mind, of life to itself, of a breast to a mouth” (17). The second is absence: “the world veiled, consciousness astray, nonsense, death, debauchery, language, weaning” (18). By deriving the second moment from the first, we return the complex to the simple, words to our mouth, the fallen to the exalted. However, with the analytic necessity of a sign’s repetition, presence loses its privilege over absence. We may read books for the first time whether the author is alive or dead, and we may read them again and again, until we are dead. Our reading of a text is not impacted by the representation (as opposed to the present presentation) of the author’s words. If graphic signifiers are not necessarily subordinate to phonic signifiers, if the signified is merely a signifier differentiated by other signifiers, and if the essential repeatability of the sign usurps the hierarchy of presence over absence, truth over fiction, spirit over body, then what are the repercussions for “presence” in literary prose? Should I, as a fiction writer, still strive to produce vital writing by way of animated language, and lively characters? The answer, for me, is: “of course.” But why? Is vital writing necessarily preferable to “dead writing”? Why do we speak in terms of life?

In her poem, “Poetry III” (1983), Adrienne Rich describes writing that carries the burden of our lives somehow: “Even if every word we wrote by then / were honest, the sheer heft / of our living behind it…” Note that she does not write “burden of life,” or “our lives,” as I did, but “heft of our living.” There is a difference, here. The gerund, living, implies a process, a going on that feeds our words, in this case, while the noun “life” contains its meaning in a temporally discrete unit. From Elbow’s concept of resonant voice, which I discussed above, it is important to take away two thoughts: first, vital writing could describe a process, rather than an attainable telos. Second, vital writing carries a burden, a weight, which suggests a body, perhaps our bodies. What if we tried the same grammar bending with the notion of presence in writing? The gerund “presenting”[i] internalizes presence as practice, or a work in progress, rather than an objective good on which to hinge a hierarchy of expression. The gerund “presenting” is not confined by tense into a discrete temporal unit, and thus its distinction with “representing” blurs. The gerund “presenting” is not closed, or a substance, but a form, a becoming, a sipping without finishing the glass. Its grammar echoes Derrida’s concept of “spacing.”

In response to Saussure’s account of speech’s passivity to language, Derrida (1976) outlines the relationship of the “fundamental unconsciousness of language” and its “spacing (pause, blank, punctuation, interval in general, etc.) which constitutes the origin of signification.” He writes:

Spacing (notice that this word speaks the articulation of space and time, the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space) is always the unperceived, the nonpresent and the nonconscious… Arche-writing as spacing cannot occur as such within the phenomological experience of a presence. It marks the dead time within the presence of the living present, within the general form of all presence. The dead time is at work” (68).

When we write fiction, the presenting and living behind our words are likewise at work. They denote a becoming, not a substance that has achieved its final form. Derrida states further that writing is “the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconscious of the subject. By the movement of its drift/derivation [dérive] the emancipation of the sign constitutes in return the desire of presence…As the subject’s relationship with its own death, this becoming,” or the drift/derivation, “is the constitution of subjectivity” (69). Writing constitutes and dislocates the subject at the same time. In the same way that rhuthmos connoted “forming” before Plato pinned it down as pattern and metre (Benveniste 1971), we may think of “vital” prose as becoming, presenting, drifting, hefting our living, constituting and dislocating. Perhaps we can even liken Rich’s “sheer heft of living,” the marks and bruises a writer leaves on her work, to Derrida’s concept of trace. Because the meaning of a sign is generated from its distinction (and différance) from other signs, it carries a trace of its non-meaning. For example, we cannot understand the word “woman” without evoking the concept of non-woman, or man. Trace is the mark of absence— “the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other and of an inside to an outside: spacing” (70). The spatial and objective exteriority would not appear without:

the nonpresence inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship with death as the concrete structure of the living present…The presence-absence of the trace, which one should not even call its ambiguity but rather its play (for the word “ambiguity” requires the logic of presence, even when it begins to disobey that logic), carries in itself the problems of the letter and the spirit, of body and soul, and of all the problems whose primary affinity I have recalled (70-71).    

In fiction writing, our characters are not “present” in any material sense of the word, but in good writing we feel the weight of experience behind them, the bruises they bear. The writer “plays” the “presence-absence” of the characters’ experience like an instrument, and in the writing that follows, we will find problems of letter and spirit, body and soul. This problem of body and soul, of how to inject “soul” into the non-present (or non-material) bodies of our characters, and our bodies of work, has commonly been addressed with the phonocentric bias that inspired Derrida to challenge Saussure’s linguistics in the first place. To draw nearer to what we mean by presence in literary fiction, I will pitch rhythm as a fresher and more “vital” metaphor than voice.


Rhythm as a “creative” metaphor

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson explore how people understand whole systems of concepts through other, more familiar ideas (1980: 116). Metaphors make one domain of experience comprehensible by describing it in terms of another. According to their theory, our basic domain of experience is human nature: our interactions with other people, the physical environment and our own bodies. Some concepts like love, time and happiness, are not clear enough in their own terms to describe our day-to-day experiences, so we ground them in our interaction with physical and cultural environments. They compare two types of metaphor: conventional— like “love is a journey” and “love is war”— or imaginative and creative, which challenges cliché and offers new insight. Their example of an imaginative metaphor is “love is a collaborative work of art” (135).  Like any analogy, this comparison hides and highlights certain properties (of love) to provide a coherent structure of meaning. They suggest that the qualities we choose to emphasize or omit in a metaphor provide feedback that guides our future actions. If we live by the understanding that love is a collaborative work of art, we minimize the passive dimensions of love (ex. “love is madness and I am not accountable”) and maximize love as a special activity, or “collaboration.” Love gains new meaning and presents an alternative way to be in the world. The metaphor does not passively reflect reality, but can change or construct it.

Like love, the components of literary fiction are not clear in their own terms. We rely on metaphors like “voice,” as well as “style,” “structure,” tone,” “mood,” “plot,” “story arc,” “setting,” and “point of view.” In the spirit of Lakoff and Johnson, I suggest that rhythm is a creative, rather than reflective, metaphor for “presence” (or “presenting”) and resonance in literary fiction. Like the love metaphor, the concept that resonant writing is rhythm highlights key features: resonant writing, or presence, is vital, linked to pulse and breath; it is sounding and not sounding (resounding); resonant writing involves words, but not always; resonant writing is music; it is dance, and muscular; resonant writing identifies us like a gait (but we may try out other gaits); resonant writing is hypnotic; it is involuntary (and voluntary). Unlike the resonance / presence is voice metaphor, the concept that resonant writing is rhythm downplays the notion of literature as monotonous, phonocentric, or the signature of its author, and highlights its power as vital, muscular and musical.

Certain lines of literature burrow into our minds. We all have them— sentences we have pocketed, a line we could not get out of our head, or simply chains of words that sparked a frisson when we first read them. For me it’s the first paragraph of Lolita, or the following line in Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief: “All of us are better when we’re loved.” When I talk about rhythm, I do not mean simply metre, or rhetoric, or structure, but the resonance that emerges from these parts. To draw a comparison, if I may, to rap music: Birgitte Stougaard Pedersen speaks of a “feeling” that rises from the performed hip hop groove and flow. She applies Wittgenstein’s concept of “gesture” to rap: the linguistic gesture, which creates meaning through tone and rhythm in language, and musical gesture, which uses accentuation, intensity and timbre (2009). In a similar vein, Robert Walser asserts that “the rhythmic placement of the phrases creates polyrhythmic tension…The music is not an accompaniment to textual delivery; rather voice and instrumental tracks are placed in a more dynamic relationship in hip hop, as the rapper interacts with the rest of the music” (1995: 204). That is— musical notation cannot represent the nuances of sound and timbre. Nor can notation represent the “micro-rhythms” in rap music, which inspire that “certain feeling” music invokes. Likewise, no scansion could translate the resonance echoing from a rhythmic line, whether the line is delivered in a sonnet or eight-hundred page novel. Rhythm is more than counting syllables. Or, as Pedersen writes, rhythm “reveals itself in between the metrical aspect on the one hand and the sounding and experienced aspect on the other” (2009: 6). More so than prose fiction, the rhythm in rap music and metered poetry possesses a pattern of variation and repetition— “but it is also something performed and perceived.” Prose rhythms are also performed and perceived, albeit on the page. If we understand the perception of rhythm as integral to the word’s definition, the process of listening, in the case of music, or reading in the case of prose, adds new meaning. “In this way,” Pedersen continues, “rhythm seems to be created between an object and the act of sensing” (6). Whether in music or literature, rhythm is greater than sheet music or scansions, in the same way that a wall calendar cannot communicate anything meaningful about the years of our lives. Any definition of rhythm in literature must consider its expression (by the writer) and perception (by the reader) in a body of work. In Meter as Rhythm, Christopher Hasty alludes to this tension between definition and experience:

Among the attributes of rhythm we might include continuity of flow, articulation, regularity, proportion, repetition, pattern, alluring form or shape, expressive gesture, animation and motion… Indeed, so intimate is the connection of the rhythmical and the musical, we could perhaps most concisely define music as the rhythmization of sound (thus the “musicality” of speech or verse.)… Music theory presents us with a reasonably clear understanding of rhythm. Thus restricted, rhythm is identified with metre, durational pattern, or durational proportion… But music as experienced is never an expression of numerical quantity (1995: 3).

Though he speaks here about rhythm and music, the same tensions arise in literature. Rhythm in prose inhabits pattern and repetition. Like free verse and prose poetry, our sound units are syllables, words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. In free verse, poets sustain a beat through image patterns and speech cadence. So too for prose; the words are simply arranged without line breaks. On a structural level, the pulse of punctuation and whitespace animates a story like it animates verse. Simple sentences move faster. Our eyes skip from full stop to full stop. The pace may feel hurried. Choppy. Conversely, a long sentence, with modifying phrases added by commas, the predicate hovering near the full stop so we’re not sure of the point until we reach the end of the line, may build anticipation by suspending the reader’s attention, or indeed lose the reader’s attention altogether and appear longwinded. When I tell colleagues I research rhythm in prose, they pause. I doubt they would hesitate if I said I studied rhythm in free verse. Neither form is organized by metre, yet rhythm in poetry is taken for granted— like rhythm in music or dance. For writers of prose fiction, rhythm feels like a term we have borrowed from other disciplines, one we must ask permission to use. Unlike poets or tap dancers, we presume ourselves unauthorized to spend time there. We are more comfortable with the word voice.

Henri Meschonnic rejects the distinction between prose and verse altogether—a position informed by his translations of the Old Testament from Hebrew. He found that the ancients wrote these texts in neither prose nor verse—yet everything was rhythm (Bourlet et al 2007).[ii] Throughout his body of work, Meschonnic discredits the impulse to compartmentalize rhythm along formal lines:

And if the poem-rhythm is a subject-form(er), rhythm is no longer a formal notion—form itself is no longer a formal notion, a notion of the sign—but a form of historicization, a form of individuation. Down with the old couple of form and meaning. Poem is all that, in language, realizes this refrain that is a maximal subjectivization of discourse. Prose, verse, or line” (2011: 165).

Rhythm is language in motion, the subject-form(er), the continual movement of subject-forming. As a prose writer, this understanding of rhythm feels true to me: why consider fiction a literary genre opposed to poetry, or indeed common language. Such formal distinctions miss the point. Meschonnic’s manifesto continues:

What the poem must demonstrate is the refusal of the separation between language and life. To recognize this as an opposition not between language and life, but between a representation of language and a representation of life…This refusal, all these refusals, are indispensable so that a poem should come—to be written, to be read. So that living should transform itself into a poem. So that a poem should transform living (173).

Again, when Meschonnic speaks of “the poem” he does not refer to a genre distinct from prose—such categories are only useful for “users” of language. For Meschonnic, we do not use language, and nor does language use us. He posits a more interesting idea: we become language (164). Whether we write prose, verse, or an email to a friend.

Pedersen writes that micro-rhythmic gestures relate a feeling of the music, which shifts by the “accentuation of the beat or a certain colour of a vowel” (2009: 8). So too with prose. Though short stories and novels are not typically performed aloud, the placement of participial phrases and punctuation, the framing of sentences into different patterns like anaphora or parallelism or anadiplosis, or simply ending a sentence on a hard syllable, tunes the sensation we experience when we read. Our understanding of the word “gesture” is also enhanced by the junction between musicology and literary studies. Robert S. Hatten (2006) defines gesture in music as an “energetic shaping through time” (2006: 8), which echoes my experience of rhythm as the animating force that begins and emerges from my writing process. Wittgenstein writes that “verbal language contains a strong musical element. (A sigh, the modulation of tone or a question, for an announcement, for longing; all the countless gestures in the vocal cadences)” (1980: 157). When we speak with one another, these gestures may be physical: where we place our hand, or how we shift the weight on our feet. But gestures may be implied even without a body: through language, as discussed above, or the strategic absence of language, by way of whitespace and punctuation. Reading is a kinaesthetic experience: “words, and grammar, and syntax, and typographic phenomena such as typeface, margin, punctuation, activate cross-sensory, psycho-physiological responses prior to concept and interpretation” (Scott 2011: 213). Clive Scott describes this kinesthetics of reading as “the dynamic of our organism as it is set in motion by the act of reading, and the sensations associated with that dynamic.” He compares the translation of the reading experience to humming a piano piece: “I am practising a kind of kinaesthetic empathy; my body weds and enacts the energies, the impulses, the hesitations let loose in the music, translates the music towards my own viscera” (214). Viscera, again. The nerves, the glands, the muscles of the reader/translator, and, I would argue, the text.



When I write, I withdraw into a mental plane separate from my conscious life—a sort of dream state, which is at odds with simultaneous interrogation of what that state entails. However, rhythm is integral to entering this space—the rhythm of the words I wrote the day before, which I read over to settle back into their cadence; the rhythm of the music I listen to, always, while working; the rhythm of my own body. To echo Meschonnic, along with Virginia Woolf and Denis Diderot, among others: it’s all rhythm. Le rythme est tout. It feels strange to dismantle my novel and point to its rhythmic material because rhythm was embedded in its conception. For me, rhythm is an initiating force—it’s where I start from—but it also emerges from the process of writing itself. The first lines I wrote of this novel, four years ago, remain in my memory:

Last July—the San Diego Zoo.

          Joan in tapered slacks, Mom’s eggshell blouse with the scalloped collar. Her cheeks have turned already. As leaves turn. The sun collects on her shoulders—a dust down her back, which pinches each shell of her spine. Now I recognize this summer as the fulcrum. One one side, Joan and I bathe together, dip in the cold lagoon, spread our bodies over the grass like tablecloths. On the other, Joan stands in our mother’s clothes. Her hand pushes the curl that kept falling back into the crown of her hat. She ignores me when I say her hat looks like a salad bowl. A flying saucer. When I hum the theremin from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robertson: 2013).

The rhythm here sets the mood for the entire book, including the scenes that now precede it. The passage emerged from these kernels: “Last July—the San Diego Zoo. Joan in tapered slacks, Mom’s eggshell blouse with the scalloped collar.” You can tell I’m focusing on rhythm when I omit verbs. I could have said, “Last July, while we were at the San Diego Zoo…,” but I elide “while we were at” with an m-dash. Equally, I could have said, “Joan wore tapered slacks…,” but I replace the verb with the preposition “in” instead. When I focus on rhythm, my vocabulary reduces to the nuts of speech—namely the nouns, which are often the first words we learn in a language. Rhythm feels, for me, like a contraction. Even if that contraction is ultimately a “siphoning” from the pool of common language.

As I continued that first passage, I linguistically set up the fulcrum implied by the words. The “on one side” construction is followed by the asyndetic construction, “Joan and I bathe together, dip in the cold lagoon, spread our bodies over the grass like tablecloths.” This shape is mirrored by what follows “on the other”: another string of simple sentences, this time linked by full stops rather than commas (but still no conjunctions.) None of this was premeditated, but it emerged from the rhythm, which itself stirred from a mental contraction, or siphoning, that released its own emergence. Indeed, “siphon” is a morphologically satisfying metaphor here. A siphon is a “a tube used to convey liquid upwards from a reservoir and then down to a lower level of its own accord. Once the liquid has been forced into the tube, typically by suction or immersion, flow continues unaided.[iii] Similarly, rhythm conveys language from the social cistern of language, then down into a “lower level” of consciousness, the writer’s mind, a process that feels, to the writer, like an invisible force—a suction, perhaps—until we relax into the “flow” of words. At least, that is how I experience it.

The two main characters of Demi-Gods, Willa and Patrick, only see each other a handful of times. The years in-between are the “grey gaps between black beats” (2000: 421) as Nabokov articulated: the tender intervals. Demi-Gods moves along by its elision and collision of episodes—marked as much by what is on the page as by what I have omitted. It is notable here that these two words—collision and elision—derive from the same root, the Latin, laedere, to strike. Now here is a verb that contains many traces: lightning strikes, a fist strikes, but so does an inspired thought, a clock, a musical note; a match strikes; workers strike; one strikes a deal, gold, a pose. Collidere means, of course, to strike together, to collide. Elidere suggests the action meets some resistance: “to crush out.” This nuance comes from the Greek words for losing a sound in a word, ekthlipsis, and ekthlibein, to squeeze out: from ex, out of and thlibein, to squeeze. Ekthlibein, to squeeze out, echoes my experience of writing as a contraction or siphoning of language. Interestingly, thlibein connects also to thlan, bruise.[iv] The years I elided in Demi-Gods are not blank. They leave bruises. A trace of what is not articulated.



Why should we be picky about critical language? What does it matter if the metaphors we use to describe literature are dormant or vital or phonocentric or cardiovascular? I’ll tell you why it matters to me: as a creative and critical writer, the metaphors I choose in academic research will infuse my fiction. If I imagine the heft behind my narrator as “voice” in the tradition of industry professionals who shout superlatives from internet rooftops, or even in the tradition of writing guides and workshops, in which one word can and does implicate three or four functions at once, the quality of that narrator’s prose will echo those traditions— it may strive to be “spectacularly original” when such declarations from marketers are spectacularly divorced from the work itself, or at best it will be competent and functional. I do not mean to criticise work that aims to be competent and functional, nor the guides that help writers achieve that goal. However, where are the bruises? Where are William Carlos Williams’ nerves and glands? Further, by pitching rhythm as a creative metaphor for “presence” in fiction, we rid ourselves of the phonocentric bias, which illuminates the utterance-less qualities of resonant literary style, such as whitespace, punctuation, and even non-linguistic symbols. Earlier in the essay, we dissected the concept of presence as a theoretical term and landed on the idea that what we talk about when we talk about resonance (or the “heft” of living that marks a text) is something between presence and absence— a reaching for or becoming. This gap, or spacing, between presence and absence, interiority and exteriority echoes the other gaps we have discussed so far: between signifier and signified, the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor, between the sounding and not-sounding of a beat. Derrida’s sense of spacing, or what is in-between, connects these supposed binaries so that we may “cross” over them as you would a bridge, like the “bridge” implied in the etymology of the word meta-phor itself.

We are limited in the extent we can be aware of our own rhythms as writers, and how rhythm affects us as readers— but we know it moves us. That is why we like nursery rhymes as children, even before we have developed our motor skills. Our sense of rhythm, and the way a beat moves us, sits at the heart of my research. During the summer of 2012, I attended a jazz dance workshop in Herräng, Sweden. By the end of the week, I realized each instructor had offered the same advice. They said to forget the movement. Before you consider the shape of a “Tacky Annie” or “Suzie Q,” internalize the beat. Skat the song to yourself. Embody it. Then see what shapes your limbs make. I wonder if the same applies to fiction writing— if we should forget character and plot until we find the “beat” of a line, or the story’s rhythm. Henri Lefebvre writes that, “Rhythms in all their multiplicity interpenetrate one another. In the body and around it… rhythms are forever crossing and recrossing, superimposing themselves upon each other…” (1991: 205). His examples include breath, the heartbeat, thirst, hunger, the need for sleep, as well as sexuality, fertility and social life.

It is on the one hand a relationship of the human being with his own body, with his tongue and speech, with his gestures, in a certain place and with a gestural whole, and on the other hand, a relationship with the largest public space, with the entire society and beyond it, the universe (1996: 235).

I write to find that junction of rhythm: the confluence of prose, poetry, music, dance, and the heft of our bodies in the world.


[i] The proximity to Heidegger’s “presencing” here was unintended (and at first unrecognized) at time of writing, though the modifications are based on similar grammatical nuances. I retain “presenting” rather than “presencing” to preserve echoes of “the present” (in time and space) as well as the word “represent(-ing).” Moreover, “presenting” is a gerund constructed from the verb “to present,” while “presencing” is the opposite—a verb-form constructed from the noun “presence.”

[ii] Original text reads: “Moi, je pose un autre point de vue à partir de mon travail de traduction sur  les  poèmes  de  l’hébreu  biblique–langue  que  j’ai  apprise  tard  et  en autodidacte mais que j’ai beaucoup travaillée. Prenant conscience que dans la Bible en hébreu, il n’y a ni vers ni prose, et que tout y est rythme, j’ai pu avoir un point de vue extérieur au point de vue européen du signe.”

[iii] Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “siphon.” Available from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/siphon. [May 23 2017.]

[iv] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “ecthlipsis.” Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ecthlipsis. [May 23, 2017.]



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Eliza Robertson has recently completed her PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. The subject of her critical study is rhythm and prose fiction. She graduated with distinction from her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2011 Man Booker Scholarship and Curtis Brown Prize. In 2013, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Journey Prize and CBC Short Story Prize. Her debut collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award, Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize and selected as a New York Times editor's choice. Her first novel, Demi-Gods, came out with Penguin Canada and Bloomsbury in Autumn 2017.