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Psychedelic Headphones.

Digital Lyrical

 Geoffrey Sirc and Steph Ceraso

An Introduction, in Tweets

rethink composing w/ aural & alphabetic txt.  visual-spatial à temporal, affective 

song structure as text. history of song in US. lots of verses & very long choruses. then tin pan alley comes along +

presto. 4 line verses, if that, and maybe a 2 or 4 line chorus, if any 

short form revolution parallels short form comp in digital age. but brevity no longer revered  #shortequalsvapid #generationADD

tech offers opportunity for rhetorical renaissance #givebrevityachance

Sounding Composition

Though the history of composition is teeming with clusters of scholarship about aurality,[1] disciplinary excitement about sound and music has become noticeably amplified in the past five years.  Computers and Composition’s special 2006 publication on “Sound in/as a Compositional Space,” which produced two distinct sound-themed issues—one in print and one online—was the first journal in rhet/comp to substantially examine sound and listening as a mode of writing.[2]   All fourteen publications in the two versions of this journal deal with the practice of composing in/as/with/through sound, as well as how this kind of composing is enabled, limited, and/or affected by technologies.  In “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape,” one of the most cited articles in this collection, Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks argue that sonic literacy, or “the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes—should become an integral part of any course aimed at developing students’ skills in writing and digital literacy” (“Voice”).  They also suggest that because new audio technologies are becoming more popular and widely available, listeners have been transforming into more active composers of sound in their daily lives. 

            Despite the recent attention that rhet/comp has been giving to sound and music in the 2000s, we often treat composing with sound merely as another form of composing with alphabetic text.  For example, because we tend to spatialize writing on the page and the screen, we don't talk about texts as moving language—as language that moves and affects people through rhythm, pitch, intonation, etc.  Instead, we talk about words as static objects that can be dissected and rearranged on the space of the page: “Move this paragraph over here,” “reorder these sentences,” “expand this section,” etc.  Similarly, the use of audio software programs such as Audacity and GarageBand, which enable composers to see the sound waves they are recording or editing on their computer screens, are visualizing, spatializing, capturing something that was once invisible, fluid, and ephemeral.  In a compositional context, then, both language and sound get detached from the body; they get distorted into visual objects in order to be analyzed, broken down, and manipulated.

The visually-dominated composition process that we tend to cling to as a discipline often ignores the feeling, the time, the music of language; the affective elements of composition.[3]  Like the visualization of sound, the visualization of language hides the other half of the story—that sound is not only an exterior experience.  As Walter Ong writes, “Sound is a special sensory key to interiority.  Sound has to do with interiors as such, which means with interiors as manifesting themselves, not as withdrawn into themselves, for true interiority is communicative” (Presence 117).  Here, Ong is directing our attention to how listeners experience sound—to how sound produces affect in listeners (“interiors as manifesting themselves”).  Of course sound is not simply one or the other—it is not either interior or exterior, but always both/and.  However, because current practices of composing emphasize the exteriority of sound (sound as a visual object), we mysteriously erase the body of the listener-composer from the conversation.  We have yet to address, then, how embodied composers create and respond to sound; the physical, sensory, and affective aspects of composition (in the broadest sense of the word) get the short shrift. 

Exploring the embodied, affective dimensions of sound is most obviously relevant to rhet/comp because in the digital age, our involvement in experiencing and producing texts is more complex and much richer than discourse alone.  We are not just producing texts; we are creating increasingly interactive, immersive environments that we don’t have a fully developed language to describe or understand yet.  Because of its relationship to embodiment and affect, composing with sound provides a productive starting point for explorations of non-discursivity in rhet/comp.  This is not to say that we should privilege aural modes of communication; rather, we need to pay attention to how all of the material and affective elements are orchestrated in a given text/environment/performance.

As Thomas Rickert emphasizes in “Music@Microsoft.Windows:  Composing Ambience,” the entire ecology of colors, graphics, music, tactiles, sonic, and alphabetic features create a particular ambience in digital environments that affect how we experience and interact with (use) these environments.  In this article, Rickert discusses musician Brian Eno’s task of composing Microsoft Windows’ startup music.  The music was expected to express a long list of adjectives and feelings (inspiring, futuristic, optimistic, etc.) in 3 ¼ seconds.  Rickert argues that this example of multimodal composition opens up new questions about ambient or affective dimensions of writing.  To comprehend and exploit these ambient or affective elements, we need to develop an understanding of “the mutually conditioning (and not determining) confluence of sound, image, material environment, bodies, and mood” (Rickert).  In other words, we can no longer think of writing as existing only within the limitations of the visual-rational-discursive.  Rather, the sensory, affective, material, and cognitive need to be theorized as mutually interacting components of texts/environments/performances. 

The brevity in which this confluence of material, temporal, and affective elements must execute rhetorical effects/affects is remarkable.  In a mediascape saturated by remixes and mashups, the technics of composition have become inextricably bound up with the arrangement and manipulation of the most potent bits of visual and/or sonic material.  Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk (Greg Gillis), for instance, is known for composing highly intricate, layered remixes by piecing together memorable scraps from the archives of pop music.  The liner notes to All Day, his most recent album (Illegal Art, 2010), boast that it includes 373 different short bursts of other people’s songs (“Girl Talk”).  While Girl Talk is criticized by some for not using turntables—his performances entail only a laptop computer and a lot of enthusiasm—the sheer number of songs he is able to appropriate and mesh together into something new is an extremely deft technical feat.  But what is perhaps most impressive from a compositional standpoint is Girl Talk’s ability to find the sweet spot—the rhetorical punch—of the songs he samples.  As Zachary Lazar notes in a recent NYT article, “These are not just a collection of other people’s hooks; Girl Talk has created a new kind of hook that encompasses 50 years of the revolving trends of pop music. Sometimes cynicism is a hook, sometimes the hook is humor, angst, irony, aggression, sex or sincerity.”  Girl Talk is a savvy rhetorician who thrives on the creation of dense, textured chains of sound bites (and the term bites is particularly apropos in this case).  In other words, he has cultivated a deep understanding of the affective, temporal, and material elements of the short form. 

Learning to succinctly engineer sound and other non-discursive compositional material is becoming an increasingly crucial part of multimodal composing practices writ large.  But as we will demonstrate in the next section, the ability to compose with concision—to pack a mean rhetorical punch—is not solely beneficial or unique to digital composition.  Sound is not only important, in itself, as compositional genre and heuristic, but sound can be important, materially, as a component to the standard scene of verbal composition.

Text as Lyric

            Writing with music, especially song, leads to a kind of textual thinking ideal for digital media. It’s useful to review briefly the history of American song form because it provides an interesting rhyme to the history of American written expression (both actual and advocated). Musicologist Charles Hamm’s survey of American song offers a concise summary of pre-Civil War lyrics (a good era to begin counterpointing essayist and lyrical prose, as it’s 1865-66 when Harvard begins examining candidates in reading aloud, a practice which leads, ten years later, to the first American college courses in English Composition). 

            Hamm notes, "American popular song of the postwar years took on a consistency and character so clear as to allow for a quite precise description" (254).  That characteristic format included an introduction and a series of verses for solo voice (16 measures, subdivided into 4 phrases of 4 measures, with some sort of regular rhyme scheme).  Each verse was sung to the same music, with those verses (content-wise) "unfolding a brief drama or sketching a vignette usually of nostalgic, cautionary, pathetic, or tragic content" (254).  Then came a refrain, generally for 4 voices; the musical material for the refrain came from some part of the verse (sometimes the first phrase, sometimes the last), the lyrical text of the chorus was typically derived from the first verse, functioning “as a choral commentary on the dramatic situation developed in the successive verses" (255).  Finally, there was a conclusion ("a piano postlude of 4 or 8 measures, derived melodically from the first phrase of the verse, sometimes identical with the introduction") (255).

            Unsurprisingly, a very similar, equally regimented template guided the production of college composition at the time.  It was a composition of Unity, Mass & Coherence (to use Barrett Wendell's terms), ensuring "that the relation of each part of a composition to its neighbors should be unmistakable" (Wendell 173), using "definitely marked transitions and carefully placed summaries" (178), the whole work orchestrated materially, drawing on previous text to cue formal relations.  As Fulton put it, describing his notion of expository essay as 'organic structure': "transition from one part to another may be made by means of some word or phrase, or sentence of backward reference placed at or near the beginning of the new part" (13).  Just as previous melodic material determined the musical refrain or postlude, so too previous text, orchestrated formally like this, would "somehow imply the motive of the whole paragraph" (Wendell 180). 

            In terms of content, the similarities hold between post-Civil War songs and the burgeoning school essay being institutionalized at the time.  Hamm quotes an 1894 observer on the lyrical content of the songs of that era: "These American songs are commendable for sobriety of statement and worthiness of purpose.  They whine somewhat, but they do not offend the moral sense, nor do they surprise by their absolute vacuity" (283).  Hamm, writing eighty-some years after that commentator puts an even finer point on it, noting "the most striking aspect of popular song in the decades following the Civil War—that in moving out of contact with the realities of life in the United States, it began painting an essentially false picture of certain aspects of American society" (283).

            The same sort of vacuous, hermetic version of life can be seen in topics of the essays showcased in textbooks of the era, whether the hoary, solemn piety of sermon-topics suggested by Genung (say, an essay developing a "series of affirmations" on a verse from Proverbs, "Buy the truth and sell it not" (266) or the sort of sentimental theme, a product of "the writer's own fancy," suggested in some "examples of gracefully or quaintly worded titles" Genung offers: "Sights and Insights," "Sunny Memories of Foreign lands," of "Buds and Bird-voices" (258, 259).

            Take a lyric like Henry Clay Work's "Grand-father's Clock" (1876).  We have an introduction, stating the stolid, slightly cornball theme (man's life as measured in time, clock as memento mori), and then verse-paragraphs which could be outline topic-points (clock accompanies him through childhood into manhood and marriage, clock as faithful uncomplaining servant, clock as seeming to wail in alarm at the old man's passing).  Seeing a few sample stanzas might serve to show 19th century song form’s similarity to the traditional, five-paragraph essay; the chorus even functions as a kind of thesis statement:

My grandfather's clock/ Was too large for the shelf,/ So it stood ninety years on the floor;/ It was taller by half/ Than the old man himself,/ Though it weighed not a pennyweight more./ It was bought on the morn/ Of the day that he was born,/ And was always his treasure and pride;/ But it stopped short/ Never to go again,/ When the old man died.

[CHORUS] Ninety years without slumbering,/ Tick, tock, tick, tock,/ His life seconds numbering,/ Tick, tock, tick, tock,/ It stopped short/ Never to go again,/ When the old man died.

In watching its pendulum/ Swing to and fro,/ Many hours had he spent while a boy;/ And in childhood and manhood/ The clock seemed to know,/ And to share both his grief and his joy./ For it struck twenty-four/ When he entered at the door,/ With a blooming and beautiful bride;/ But it stopped short/ Never to go again,/ When the old man died./ CHORUS

My grandfather said/ That of those he could hire,/ Not a servant so faithful he found;/ For it wasted no time,/ And had but one desire,/ At the close of each week to be wound./ And it kept in its place,/ Not a frown upon its face,/ And its hand never hung by its side./ But it stopped short/ Never to go again,/ When the old man died./ CHORUS

Just as 19th century handbooks for English Composition advocated a conventional part-to-whole architectonic, where the introduction sets out the thesis and a sense of the work’s scope, so too did the strophic songwriters of the era craft essayistic works: much of the musical shape and substance of the song “is anticipated in the [opening] verse, which has entire phrases in common with the chorus.  Both the introduction and the verse prepare us for the chorus, by introducing strains to be heard later.  In a broader sense, the music is familiar even before one hears the song for the first time” (Hamm 309).

          Around 1890, however, songwriting changed in America. The Modern Era meant new inventions, new styles, and the rhythm of urban growth; songwriting reflected this change.  The long-lined, many-stanzaed, strophic song became increasingly rare, in favor of the new, shorter Tin Pan Alley song ushered in by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.  Here’s one musician’s observation from the early 1920s, noting the evolution of the modern lyric:

Previous to 1897 every song had to have six or seven verses and each verse had eight or ten lines.  Now there are two verses of a scant four lines each, and even at that, the second verse scarcely counts at all.  The whole story must be told in the very first verse and chorus. (Hamm 359)

A decade later, even the verse was seen by some composers as optional.  Like haiku writers and bluesmen, a composer’s skill was measured by how inventive he could be in a brief, tightly restricted form (Hamm 361).  And as form became simpler, so, too, did the dramatic content (Hamm 293).  But a more stream-lined, modern lyric, with a focused, immediate, dramatic situation by no means resulted in impoverished content.  Take a standard like “The Days of Wine and Roses,” for example; it’s able to inflect the same sort of tempus fugit theme of “My Grandfather’s Clock,” but without the cloying, sentimental morbidity:

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away, like a child at play

Through a meadow land toward a closing door,

A door marked "nevermore," that wasn't there before.


The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories

Of the golden smile that introduced me to

The days of wine and roses and you.

It’s just two sentences long, but how much Johnny Mercer is able to do in them; songwriter Gene Lees sees in that lyric the micro-Proustian, “the startled sadness of everyone’s eventual dawning perception that time has slipped irretrievably away and some things have been lost forever, including the joy of naïve discovery, and that one has begun to grow old.  It is a brilliant lyric, a jewel of the form. . . . It could be argued that the modern era of lyric writing dates from that song” (Lees 81).

          It's a matter of efficiency: Mercer accomplishes more, content-wise, in just two lines in "Days of Wine and Roses" than those post-Civil War essay-songs do, with all their many verses and long choruses, their rigid conventions and dutiful repetitions.  The Tin Pan Alley composers wrote for a new urban audience, one increasingly saturated by media stimuli, so they knew they had to make their quick media-burst count, because of all the competition. They didn't have time to set up a long exegesis on love or nostalgia.


Short-Form Writing

The evolution of the popular lyric provides a nice metonym for the historical changes in expressive text in general.  But where the Tin Pan Alley lyric is now seen as the high-water mark of American songwriting, similar changes in the texts of the everyday have been met with scorn rather than praise.  Think of the eye-rolling vitriol that greeted the USA Today’s re-fashioning of journalistic stories into small, on-the-go texts.  It’s the notion that when it comes to text, shorter has to be less substantive, less thoughtful, less developed.  Elaboration equals depth.  The painter and art critic Fairfield Porter, in his landmark 1958 manifesto on “The Short Review” was prescient in dealing with this prejudice: "A short review is thought to denote small importance: the critic evaluates by the inch" (167).  But Porter defended the short review as not only a perfect length, given all the competing media demands on our attention, but as allowing in that length to do just what criticism should do: given a strong sense or flavor of the work, so interested readers can investigate further if they want.  Every piece of writing does not have to be the final arbiter, the ultimate judgment.  How someone felt about a work was important and could be well managed in a short space: "People in general do not trust themselves enough.  A genuine and ordinary reaction to paintings and sculptures, like one's first impression of a new person, is usually very much to the point" (168).

            And Porter was prescient, as well, in realizing there would be a shift, in this hyper-informational world filled with perennially distracted readers, away from always having to pronounce the last word on what things mean.  “Stop making sense,” the Talking Heads urged, and Porter was one of the first to ride that wave, advocating the locus of criticism as simply a descriptive, evocative project, rather than—as so much of traditional college writing has it—a tedious project in determining TRUTH: 

Some art has an open meaning, and can be written about in terms of this meaning; but the chances are that if meaning is the most interesting thing about it, it does not stand alone, it does not assert itself.  It leans on what it means.  An implied meaning is richer.  And the evaluation of the critic is most interesting when it is implied rather than explicit, because if it is explicit, something is almost unavoidably left out.  A review can be at best a parallel creation, its subject being the nature of the painting or sculpture.  Criticism creates an analogy, and by examining this analogy you see what the art essentially is.  Criticism should tell you what is there. (168)

How might such a project as Porter’s play out when it comes to, say, writing with and about music?  A young college student, Michelle Witgen, in a course concerning literature and the other arts, writes a short-form review of Ssion’s video for the song “Clown,” and it’s the perfect Fairfield Porter evocative piece, the kind of “accurate impressionist criticism,” communicating the “character” of the work (168) Porter values, and which dwells on the richer, implied meaning of the work, as well as her evaluation of it:

We’re sucked into the world where creativity is not stifled and people are allowed to be their strange selves.  Psychedelic videos back dance beats and synchronized moves.  The homemade and the glamorous meet.  We make our own worlds, we realize.  We make the colorful costumes we want to wear and paint our faces the way we think they should look.  If we imagine mouths strapped on dresses, we see to it that we have a music video with women in those dresses.  Maybe the world is not colorful enough for us.  It’s not queer enough.  So we paint and queer it.  We let everyone know we’re big.  We let them know we look funny, that we’re strange like them and like it.  Maybe once we questioned whether or not we should be this way, but now we’re sure and we’re bold.  Now I see the shapes and patterns I’ve always imagined.  I’m dancing the dance moves as the front man like I’ve always done in my head.  I’m a fool hanging out with fools; we love it.  These bright colors are beautiful. These words I’m singing are beautiful.

The change in popular song’s size and shape, we are arguing, has anticipated the same refurbishing in popular text writ large, as more compact, more responsive to contemporary taste and need.  But not everybody’s taste, certainly – we remember that guardians of national prose can be a conservative lot. For example, in a recent New York Times piece on death of email, some critics of digital text, predictably, turn up their noses at the informality and the abbreviated spellings that are rampant in bite-size, mobile transmissions. Judith Kallos, who writes a blog and books about e-mail etiquette, complains that the looser, briefer and less grammatical the writing, the less deep the thoughts and emotions behind it. “We’re going down a road where we’re losing our skills to communicate with the written word,” Ms. Kallos said. Mary Bird, 65, of San Leandro, Calif., is another traditionalist, if a reluctant one. “I don’t want to be one of those elders who castigate young peoples’ form of communication,” she said. “But the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost.”

            Another cultural patrician, Neal Gabler, complaining that “a reading society in which print that was overwhelmingly seamless, informal, personal, short, etc., would be a society in which that kind of reading would force thought out – a society in which tens of millions of people feel compelled to tell tens of millions of other people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show,” shows his textual prejudice against short-form, auto-descriptive writing.[4]  But there’s nothing inherently wrong or unreflective about short food description; Proust had no trouble with it:  “The scaly-surfaced stoup of the oyster with its few remaining drops of sea water, still enveloped it, inedible, poetic, distant as a landscape” (The Guermantes Way 115).  His text reads like an urbane haiku.  If one didn’t mind cascades of many, many lyric posts, Proust’s Twitter-feed would have been brilliant.

            Conceptual thinness, ugly language – that's the sad, possible fate of any text, no matter the length or the medium, but it's by no means inevitable with any medium.  Our examples above are not unique.  Writing about and with music is arts criticism, an activity more people should engage in, both in general and in institutionally sponsored writing environments like the classroom.  It can only improve life to record impressions and reflections on the popular arts, especially the artistic works so crucial to helping form our lives.  In fact, short-form writing about music has become a cultural staple: not just in print magazines (and their online sites) dealing exclusively with music, on music sites like Pitchfork, on mp3 blogs, and the host of internet sites that discuss music (e.g., Every Bob Dylan Song), but capsule reviews of new songs or albums appear regularly in newspapers as well as magazines of more general interest.

            Clearly, bite-sized bits of commentary on popular music are an indispensible part of the contemporary mediascape.  And just as the radically shortened song lyrics that followed the Tin Pan Alley writers’ break with previous long-form songs resulted in no loss of emotional or ideal power when compared with the 19th century strophic songs, Porteresque short-form reviews of music can be as powerful indeed.  As evidence, we offer some examples from a piece by Steve Erickson, “L.A.’s Top 100,” a piece which was included in a Da Capo ‘best music writing’ collection, and which is nothing but a short explanatory preface and a long series of short reviews of songs that have to do with Los Angeles.  As Erickson explains, “Every city has a soundtrack, but sometimes Los Angeles seem like a soundtrack that has a city” (68).  What Erickson has done, in effect, is put together a 100-song mixtape, themed around the idea of LA, and then written annotations for each selection on his playlist.  Here are a couple of examples:

35 “LOOSE,” the Stooges (1970) Here’s a good one: Their record company decided it would bring this Ann Arbor band out to L.A. to keep them under control, which was like bringing the Black Death to 14th-century Europe to contain the world’s rodent population.  After Jim Morrison’s demise the Doors tried to recruit the Stooges lead singer, one James Jewel Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, but Iggy decided to have himself committed instead; when he got out of the loony bin, still very bent but certainly having left the bin a little loonier, he wrote songs about his adopted town with titles like “Kill City.”  Nothing, however, was as harrowing as this, a predatory rampage down Hollywood Boulevard. (80)


47 “CRY ME A RIVER,” Julie London (1955) A love song.  Intensely shy about her bombshell looks, apprehensive about her torrid singing, musically naked but for a bare bass and stark guitar, London invented a new genre: revenge-torch.  Robert Johnson by way of Marilyn Monroe. (78)

We don’t mean to imply that it’s brevity alone that is important here.  Erickson is clearly a very smart critic with an enthusiasm for pop music.  But there is powerful content in Erickson’s brief lines: a sense of how/why the Stooges imploded as a band; a chiasmic comparison of Julie London as country blues crossed with Hollywood sex symbol.  Notice, too, what we feel helps explain where some of the power is in the writing: Erickson’s command, whether conscious or not, of rhetorical figures.  Longinus postulated a key to great writing as the use of elevated language to wow a reader, “not to persuade the hearers, but to entrance them; and at all times, and in every way, what transports us with wonder is more telling than what merely persuades or gratifies us” (100).  For Longinus, the secret was the kairotic flourish of rhetorical figures; it made one’s writing irresistibly sublime: “a well-timed stroke of sublimity scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and in a flash reveals the full power of the speaker” (100). 

            Note Erickson’s use of figurative language to achieve his power: asyndeton in his catalogue of the factors operative on London’s song, as well as the neologism; in his commentary on “Loose,” he has a great simile to show the odd choice of thinking LA would be therapeutic for Iggy, there’s polyptoton (loony/loonier), as well as the hyperbole in the last line (one could also claim hyperbole in the Black Death simile as well).  Erickson’s short reviews are full of such figures: epergesis (writing about the Go-Go’s song “This Town,” which is called “this deadly Valentine to their city—a Pop Tart with a razor blade in the middle” [71]); diorthosis (“He’s a joke now, of course, but there’s no denying this electric moment in pop history, brilliantly produced by Quincy Jones, written and sung by a man wearing all his paranoia on his rolled up sleeve’ [76], about “Billie Jean”); epanorthosis (“In the late ‘60s Don Van Vliet collapsed into a double album called Trout Mask Replica the entire musical history of America, or the America of his mind, anyway,” or, reviewing the Chinatown soundtrack: “Released near the climax of the Watergate scandal, when all America’s authority figures had gone bad, this was a shimmery requiem to a city that still belonged to the angels, before the angels went bad, too” [72, 73]); interrogatio (“who knows when it seemed like a good idea [for David Bowie] to record this overwrought Dimitri Tiomkin theme to a crummy old Anthony Quinn film?  While coked to the gills in the back of his limo rolling down La Cienega?  Staring out from the edge of some Hollywood Cliffside wondering if he should plummet to earth like the alien he was always playing?”  [74]); anastrophe (“Two months after that from an overdoes of tequila and morphine in Joshua Tree he was dead” [76]); and antithesis (“Terrifying, depraved, and, God help you, sexier than you’ll ever admit,” or “stripped down to something between a chain-gang chant and penthouse seduction” [78, 81]).

            It’s our contention that short-form writing (and some of Erickson’s reviews are no longer than a Tweet: his take on Elvis’s “Burning Love,” for example: “Only weeks before, Priscilla had left him for another man.  The soundtrack of spontaneous human combustion” [83]) is providing the opportunity for a rhetorical renaissance.  Maybe the art and beauty of language is being lost in some writers’ Facebook updates or Twitter feeds, but there’s nothing inherent in the technology to predetermine that.  Short lyrics invited Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart to play all sorts of incredible games with language, and the brevity of the lyric allowed those games to shine forth in quick flashes just as Longinus would have wanted.  We need to inflect the scene of textual analysis (especially now, in this post-Google era in which Nicholas Carr claims our concentration has been hyper-saturated so longer texts are more tedious to process) according to Porter’s basic truism: "Reviews should be short.  Who likes to read art criticism?" (169). That’s not a recipe for dumbing-down form or content, but an opportunity for focused rhetorical craft and effect (and affect), for a chance not only to make powerful impressionistic meaning efficiently, but to do so with sublimity.  Dismissing the form is too rètardaire; we need to exploit the form, turning it into a major rhetorical project. Following the writers above, we can prize the opportunity to, when the situation makes it logical, change the verbal scene, discarding the received need for lengthy hypotactic elaboration in favor of short-form description, tracing implied meaning. Sententia, the short, gnomic, apothegm or epigram, has always been an immensely valued form.  Now we have technology that not only legitimizes it, but necessitates it.

            This means writing programs around the country will have to catch up, finally, at least with Tin Pan Alley, in the way it changed demotic popular forms.  It’s a question, then, of learning from the history of the popular lyric about the strong impression left by short, punchy, catchy text.  “The words must jingle,” was George M. Cohan’s Longinian songwriting mantra (in Hamm 313).  College writing has doggedly pursued the strophic song-form with many long-lined verses and transitional refrains between them.  Our pedagogical belief was the Facebook prejudice: short equals vapid.  But this obviates the challenge of refiguring composing skills around new, necessary short forms and the importance of the memorable bit.  Remember what a lyricist like Johnny Mercer accomplished in just two sentences.  Lees can’t say enough about Mercer’s rhetorical skill, praising his work’s “principles of euphony and articulation,” “its perfect literate craftsmanship and . . . powerful vivid use of Anglo-Saxon imagery” (73).  In such gushing, Lees gives us new bearings around which to recalibrate our notions of textual excellence.  We need American writers, in our national, demotic prose style, to accomplish what Lees claims was Mercer’s special gift, that he “heard and used the American vernacular with great sensitivity and skill” (83).  It is not wrong to think that a focus on the brief lyric can help attune ears to that end and throw the principles of short verbal craft into sharper relief.


Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl and Byron Hawk. Special Issue: “Sound in/as Compositional Space: A Next Step In Multiliteracies.” Computers and Composition and Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006):

Erickson, Steve.  L.A.’s Top 100.”  Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002.  Eds. Jonathan Lethem & Paul Bresnick.  Cambridge MA: Da Capo, 2002. Print.

Gabler, Neil.  “A Modern-day Gutenberg, Without the Helpful Impact.”  2 Dec. 2010. Web.  3 Dec. 2010.

Genung, John F.  Practical Elements of Rhetoric.  Boston: Ginn & Co., 1886. Print.

“Girl Talk- All Day Sample List.” 8 Jan. 2011.

Hamm, Charles.  Yesterdays: Popular Song in America.  New York: Norton, 1979. Print.

Lazar, Zachary. “The 373-Hit Wonder.” 6 Jan. 2011. Web.  8 Jan. 2011.

Lees, Gene.  Singers and the Song II.  New York: Oxford UP, 1998.  Print.

Longinus.  On the Sublime.  Classical Literary Criticism.  Ed. & Trans. T. S. Dorsch.  London: Penguin, 1965.  97 – 158.  Print.

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.

Porter, Fairfield.  Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935 – 1975.  Ed. Rackstraw Downes. New York: Taplinger, 1979.  Print.

Proust, Marcel.  The Guermantes Way.  Trans. Mark Treharne.  London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Richtel, Matt.  “E-Mail Gets an Instant makeover.”  20 Dec. 2010. Web.  21 Dec. 2010.

Rickert, Thomas. “Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience.” The Writing Instructor. May 2010.

Wendell, Barrett.  English Composition.  New York: Scribner’s, 1905.  Print.

[1] See Selfe, Cynthia. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC 60.4 (2009): 616-663.

[2] Though enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, published a special issue on the links between rhetoric, composition, and music in 1999, these articles had more to do with rhetorical and cultural theory than the actual act of composing.

[3] For a rigorous and illuminating analysis of the temporal aspects of language, see Katz, Steven. The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[4] For a counter-perspective, see Cathy Davidson’s blog post, “Why Doesn’t Anyone Pay Attention Anymore?”:

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