Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sketching a New Speedometer: Leithauser on Sondheim on Craft

Last weekend's New York Times Book Review had a piece done by the poet/novelist Brad Leithauser on the second volume of Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011).  Anyone who has followed this blog knows popular music is a penchant of mine - the long running feature, Issa's Sunday Service, currently on hiatus, attests to that. 

The relation between lyric and poem is less relation than symbiosis so, though not particularly interested in Sondheim's lyrics more than casual fan, which I certainly am, I gave the review a go and stumbled on a little bit of wonder.  Here is Leithuaser, after discussing Sondheim's decided preference for exact rhyme as opposed to off or half rhyme, setting up a pointed quote, followed by some fine commentary, and the other shoe:

Here he (Sondheim) is discussing a rhyme from "Follies":

"I had a similar moment when I paired 'soul-stirring' and 'bolstering.'  The rhyme is not perfect of course - the equal accents on 'soul' and 'stir' don't quite match the heavy accent on 'bol' and the lighter one on 'ster,' but I tried to mask that by leaping the melody up on each '-ing' to distract the ear."
In fact, I can't imagine how serious craftsmen in any field wouldn't find both books (of Sondheim's collected lyrics) inspiring.  The quilt maker fussing over which shade of red to employ as a highlight; the cook experimenting on how most appetizingly to glaze a plate of scallops; the automobile designer sketching a streamlined new speedometer - all such people should experience a sense of kinship when reading Sondheim debating whether, when seeking a rhyme, he might fairly use "wood" rather than "woods":
"What justification was there to use 'wood' here (and in the 'Finale') and 'woods' everywhere else?  I finally hit on an explanation: 'wood' sounded statelier and therefore suited a lyric sung by someone outside the action."

A wonderful bit of insight for poet, songwriter, and those attentive to detail in any circumstance.  Leithauser is to be praised; to focus on this 'small' bit of detail in a 450 plus page book encapsulates the importance of the whole book, exactly what is needed in the short art form known as the book review. 

Photograph by Jack Delano

the farting contest
begins at once...
winter quilt
translated by David G. Lanoue


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature. Here's how.

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 127 songs


1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I shouldn't have come over when I was hungry. All I could pay attention to was the skillet! :)