An enormous critical vocabulary exists to explain the rhythmical sound effects of poetry, but the vocabulary is much more limited which explains the workings of sound effects in prose. Often, when faced with a prose poem or a passage of poetically “heightened” prose, critics import the terms and notions of poetry, an importation that assumes that prose sound effects work no differently than those of poetry. In this study, Adam Piette develops a practical system to analyze the workings of sound effects in poetic prose and to explore the mimetic relation between prose rhyme and the rhythms of memory in modern fiction.
Piette’s system is simple and flexible. “Alerting devices,” such as rhythmical regularity, word repetition, and “purple” passages, signify to the reader that the phonetic runs and prose-rhymes of a given passage are more than coincidental and that the passage requires more patient attention to its acoustic details than the skim-reading granted to most narrative prose. Such careful reading turns up the “key words” of the passage, thematically significant words that are acoustically emphasized by the repetition of their phonemes in runs, strings, and the more complex echo-patterns Piette terms “stress-lines.” Piette minutely dissects rhyming prose passages but, importantly, then relates these flights of technical virtuosity to interpretive and evaluative issues of the text. The reader of modern literature, Piette asserts, distrusts poetic prose, sensing it to be an indulgence on the part of the writer unless justified [End Page 1038] by exigencies of the narrative itself. Piette’s system allows for a writer’s shift into poetic prose to be aesthetically justified—or found to be unwarranted—by exploring the mimetic relation between the fugitive music of rhyme and memory. Memory, Piette argues, lies at the heart of modern fiction, and rhyme lies at the heart of memory: the evanescence of rhyme sounding and dying within a prose passage mimics the ebb and flow of remembrance and forgetting that is the theme of so much modern literature. As memory fleetingly inhabits the present tense through rhymes in the narrative voice, Piette documents its structuring and often subversive role in the text.
Piette applies his prose-rhyme analysis to the works of four major writers in two languages—Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett—writers whose works are both acoustically rich and profoundly concerned with the workings of memory. Piette’s readings of these texts can be extremely close, but he does not lose sight of larger literary contexts, conducting his readings with reference to Hardy, Baudelaire, Nabokov, Dickens, the English Romantics, Poe, and Wagner, and taking issue with other critics’ interpretations of these texts (Piette’s defense of Mallarmé against Derrida’s charge that sound-repetitions drain words of meaning through the satiation of the supplément is particularly spirited). Piette’s approach is tactical, not strategic, based as it is on the close examination of relatively short passages of prose. His most convincing results come in his chapters on Mallarmé and Beckett, writers whose texts are brief enough that the prose echoes they contain overlap more closely and never fade too far from the reader’s acoustic memory. However, Piette’s concept of “motifs” (keywords, runs, and strings repeated in more than one passage) allows him to uncover the structuring role of prose-rhyme echoes throughout the much longer works of Proust and Joyce.
The pitfalls of an interpretive strategy based upon often microscopically close readings of a text’s phonemes are obvious. Piette’s own eloquent prose circumvents much of the potential dullness of disassembling literature into its component sounds. Generally, he remains on guard against the temptation to overinterpret what might be, after all, mere phonetic coincidences, and it is this balance between macrotextual and microtextual perspectives that is the cardinal virtue of his study. Although Piette’s system is not dependent upon the mimetic relation between memory and rhyme, and therefore could be [End Page 1039] employed to examine the prose-rhyme techniques of non-mnemonic fiction, much of the interpretive potential of his approach would be lost. By...